The Old Testament. Magic the attempt to exploit supernatural powers by formulaic recitations to achieve goals that were otherwise unrealizable was seen in a negative light in the Old Testament ( Leviticus 19:26 Leviticus 19:31 ; 20:6 ; 1 Sam 28:9 ; Isa 8:19 ; 44:25 ; 57:3 ; Jer 27:9 ; Ezek 22:28 ; Micah 5:12 ; Nahum 3:4 ; Mal 3:5 ) and was banned under penalty of death ( Exod 22:18 ; Lev 20:27 ; Deut 18:10-11 ). However, many Canaanite magical practices were later widespread in the divided monarchy: Jezebel practiced sorcery ( 2 Kings 9:22 ); Manasseh encouraged divination ( 2 Kings 21:6 ; 2 Chron 33:6 ); Hebrew seers and diviners practiced the magic arts ( Micah 3:7 ); and Isaiah condemned women who wore charms ( Isa 3:18-23 ). The multiplicity of terminology used in the bans testifies that magic was a pervasive problem in the Israelite world. However, many of the banned terms (primarily in Deut 18:10-11 ) have defied easy explanation, including child sacrifice (possibly used for divinatory purposes Deut 18:10 ; 2 Kings 21:6 ), types of divination ( Num 23:23 ; Deut 18:10-11 ; 1 Sam 15:23 ; 2 Kings 17:17 ; Micah 3:6 ), sorceries ( Exod 22:18 ; Deut 18:11 ; Jer 27:9 ; Micah 5:12 ; Mal 3:5 ), and necromancy ( 1 Sam 28 ).
Magic was considered an aspect of pagan wisdom; magicians were counted as wise men ( Psalm 58:5 ; Dan 1:20 ; 2:13 ) and officials of foreign governments ( Gen 41:6 ; Exod 7:11 ; Dan 2:2 ). Different from pagan sources, the Old Testament writers did not see a connection between magic and the gods. Foreign magicians in Scripture did not invoke help of their gods for magical formulas, but often called upon self-operating forces that were independent of the gods ( Isa 47:13 ; the monotheistic Israelites did not accept the existence of the foreign gods ). Moreover, the biblical writers seemed to attribute a reality to magical power that it did not ascribe to the gods. Magic was considered human rebellion that unlocked divine secrets, making humanity equal with God.
Although there was a formal ban on magic, Israelite religion appeared on the surface to have adopted some Canaanite magical practices. There are many references scattered throughout the Old Testament to various imitative magical practices, including the use of clothing ( 2 Kings 2:13-14 ), magic staffs ( Exod 7:9 ), hands ( 2 Kings 5:11 ), mandrakes ( Gen 30:14-18 ), instruments ( 2 Kings 6:7 ), hair ( Judges 16:17 ), whispering ( 2 Sam 12:19 ), spells ( Joshua 10:12 ), belomancy ( 1 Sam 20:20-22 ), hydromancy ( Exod 15:25 ), and various blessings, curses, and dreams. Old Testament ceremonial regulations appear to have had a magical flavor to them. Animals for sacrifice had to be the proper age, sex, and color; many were probably not used because they were utilized in the magic arts of the Canaanites ( Deut 14:21 ).
However, foreign materials and technical terms of magic were simply used as vehicles of expression in Israelite religion. The magical features preserved ancient elements whose original meaning had been radically altered. The writers stripped the magical actions of their autonomous power and made them serve as vehicles of God's will. Yahweh's name was invoked by the miracle worker ( Exod 7:8-9 ; 15:25 ; 1 Kings 17:21 ; 2 Kings 2:14 ). Miracles were merely signs validating the mission of the prophet, who did not work by his skill but by the power of Yahweh ( Exod 3:14-17 ; Deut 13:2-3 ; Judges 6:17 Judges 6:36 ; 1 Kings 18:36 ; Isa 7:10-11 ). The writers took great pains to show that Moses was helpless without God ( Exod 4:10 ; Exodus 6:12 Exodus 6:30 ). Even Balaam, both a magician and prophet, could only do God's will ( Num 23:12 ). God could overturn a curse and make it a blessing ( Psalm 109:28 ). The man of God healed the sick, revealed hidden things, performed wonders, and pronounced curses and blessings, just like a pagan magician. However, it was not done with any technical skill, nor were these people praised for any wisdom ( 2 Kings 5:11 ). All procedures were commonplace and untraditional.
The Israelites viewed divination as a subsidiary of magic. The biblical writers banned all of the foreign techniques employed for divinatory oracles ( Leviticus 20:6 Leviticus 20:27 ; Deut 18:10 ; 1 Sam 28:3 ; 2 Kings 23:24 ; Isa 2:6 ; 8:19 ; 57:3 ; Ezek 13:17 ), including hydromancy ( Genesis 44:5 Genesis 44:15 ) and astrology ( Isa 47:13 ; Jer 10:2 ). They were distinguished from inquiries of Yahweh (Urim and Thummin, Num 27:21 ; ephod, 1 Sam 23:9 ; lots, Num 26:55 ; dreams, 1 Sam 28:6 ) on the grounds that divination was a custom of the nations. However, the Israelites believed in its power ( 1 Sam 28:8-20 ). As with magic, the biblical writers did not view divination as connected with the gods, but instead considered it a magic or wisdom art that revealed secrets of God in a wrong way ( Isa 19:3 ; Ezek 21:26 ; Hosea 4:12 ). Thus, the divinatory technician trusted in omens and in human wisdom, rather than in God. Inquiry was acceptable, as long as it was only to God and confirmed by him ( Judges 6:36 ; 7:4 ; 2 Sam 5:23 ). The Israelites preferred the simple technique of lot inquiry, addressing God and relying on his decision instead of going through an elaborate system of ritual. In sum, they did not reject divination in the strictest sense, but approved of the technique of inquiring of God to learn of his decisions.
The New Testament. Magical practices were also prevalent in the New Testament world. Although the New Testament writers did not explicitly condemn magic, none who practiced magic arts were described in a flattering way. There were numerous warnings against sorcery (Gk. pharmakos [farmakov"], one who dealt with drugs and potions Gal 5:20 ; Rev 9:21 ; 18:23 ; 21:8 ; 22:15 ).
New Testament Christians viewed magical practices like their Old Testament counterparts. Although Simon the magician (Gk. magos [mavgo"] originally a term for an Iranian priestly group, it came to have a technical meaning cf. Herodotus, The Histories 1.101,132; Matt 2:1-16 ; Acts 13:6-8 ) was severely criticized by Peter ( Acts 8:9-24 ), the efficacy of his power was not denied, and he was considered dangerous. The story of Bar-Jesus (who attempted to resist Paul and Barnabas Acts 13:4-12 ) was used by the writer to exhibit the differences between Christ and magic. The only other magicians mentioned by name were Jannes and Jambres, the Egyptian priests of Moses' time ( 2 Tim 3:6-8 ); these names were noted in later Jewish writings and even by Pliny the Elder, who thought Moses was one of the Egyptian magicians (Natural History 30, 1 11). These two were looked upon by Paul as examples of those who opposed the truth. The one who had a spirit of divination (Gk. pneuma python normally a spirit connected with the Delphic oracle Acts 16:16 ) was forced to acknowledge Jesus, but the apostles did not accept this testimony because of the ungodly source. The burning of books on magic arts ( Acts 19:19-20 ) was seen as a sign that the word of the Lord was growing. Seducers (a term that probably signified a spell-binding magician 2 Tim 3:13 ) were thought by Paul to be deceived, and Paul claimed figuratively that the Galatians had been bewitched ( Gal 3:1 ). He likely alluded to magical practices in his treatment of heresy in Colossians 2:8-23.
Many of the accepted practices in the New Testament (exorcisms, faith healing, and the use of lots Acts 1:26 ) could have been construed by the Gentiles as similar to their own rituals. In fact, there were some linguistic similarities between words used for exorcism and healing in the New Testament and pagan magical rites. The Gentiles saw miracles as magical in nature, and thus confused those of the apostles with their own magic ( Acts 8:9-11 ). The exorcisms of Jesus appeared to some as magical ( Matt 12:25-37 ; Mark 3:23-30 ; Luke 11:17-20 ), as well as his use of saliva to heal the blind ( Mark 7:33 ). In fact, some rabbinical references claimed that Jesus was a magician. But the New Testament writers regarded Jesus and the apostles' miraculous Acts as of divine origin. The healing of the woman with the issue of blood was done because of her faith ( Matt 9:20-22 ; Mark 5:25-34 ; Luke 9:34-38 ), not by magic.
Mark W. Chavalas
Bibliography. H. C. Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible; A. Guillaume, Prophecy and Divination Among the Hebrews and Other Semites; H. Huggman, The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth:Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman inCelebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, pp. 355-59; S. Iwry, JAOS81 (1961): 27-34; J. Lindbloom, VT12 (1962): 164-78; M. Unger, Biblical Demonology; R. B. Zuck, Bibliotheca Sacra 128 (1971): 362-60.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Magic'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".