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Here’s how Bible stories mimic common literary tropes about magic and wizardry

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- Commentary

The Bible is full of magic.

In the centuries since the biblical texts were written, Abrahamic religions have refined and promoted the view that all supernatural events are part of a divine contest between God and the devil, with the miraculous on one side and the occult on the other. Pentecostals and some other biblical literalists still hold this view today. To them, supernatural forces regularly cause ripples in our natural world. Some of these supernatural signs and wonders come from God and are good; others are not. That is why one should vigorously avoid gateways to the devil like palm reading, seances, or even indulging in fantasy stories like Harry Potter.

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This may be what Christian fundamentalists teach today, but during the formative years of the Hebrew religion and even Christianity, things weren’t so crystalized. Evidence in Genesis suggests that Hebrew beliefs were evolving from polytheism to monotheism, with a layer in between of monolatry—belief in many gods but worship of one. The Torah shows hints of conflicts that were part of this process.

As monotheism displaced prior forms of worship, traditional folk magic became associated with earlier and competing religious traditions. It was replaced gradually by more encompassing theologies and condemned by an increasingly powerful priesthood.

But despite the best efforts of the priestly class, some ancient practices had staying power.

As Sam Harris put it, we are talking about cultures that would have thought the wheelbarrow a radical invention. It is important to remember that. Even the most forward-thinking people of the time had no idea what caused illness or rain, birth or death; and the Bible writers, whether forward-thinking or not, had no way to escape their cultural context.

In the earliest texts of the Old Testament (the Torah), some kinds of folk magic are simply assumed to be part of everyday life. In the stories that have been handed down, these practices coexist with grand supernatural events attributed to the God of Abraham, Yahweh. These magical beliefs are not unique to the early Hebrew religion; they are part of the broader cultural fabric of the Ancient Near East.

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Nor do the writers of the New Testament texts escape this magical worldview. In the nativity stories, the signs and wonders surrounding the birth of Jesus were of a sort familiar to people of the time. Similarly, the miracles attributed to the adult Jesus in the gospels are mostly of a sort commonly attributed to priests, sorcerers, god-men, and minor deities.

The Bible, as I said, is full of magic. Divination, astrology and fortunetelling, potions, conjuring, numerology, transmutation or alchemy, spell-casting and incantations, curses, healings, charms and talismans, conjuring . . . each of these can be found in the Bible—including in stories about people and events that have God’s approval—just as they can be found in stories from around the world.

Mind you, some Bible writers also warn repeatedly against many of these practices, which are associated with competing gods and cultures (see, for example, Deuteronomy 18:10-11). But even though these men seek to purge their religion of outside influences, they can’t help but fall into the pre-scientific worldview of their age, which is woven through with folk magic and wizardry.

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Here are just a few examples.

Divination – In Genesis (44:5), Joseph has a silver drinking cup, which he uses for divining. The passage likely refers to the practice of scrying, in which a vessel is filled with water and the fortuneteller gazes into it, similar to the technique reportedly used by Nostradamus. Exodus (28:30) refers two divining objects, the Urim and Thummim, perhaps two flat stones, that the High Priest consults to determine the will of God. In other passages, lots, meaning marked pieces of wood or stone like dice, are used by more ordinary people for a similar purpose (Numbers 26:55, Proverbs 16:33, Proverbs 18:18). In the book of Daniel, the protagonist—a Hebrew prophet—is employed for a number of years by the King of Babylon as the manager of his “magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” (Daniel 5:11).

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Jumping ahead to the New Testament book of Matthew, a visit from three foreign astrologers known as the three magi or wise men gives credence to the divinity of Jesus. They bring gifts that portend later events in his life. Today, some Christians engage in a form of divination known as bibliomancy—seeking messages from God by opening the Bible to a random page and putting a finger on a random verse. Bibliomancy dates back at least to the 11th Century.

Potions – In Genesis, Rachel, the wife of Jacob, acquires magical mandrake roots to assist her in getting pregnant (Genesis 30:14-22). These may have been eaten in small bits or ground into a potion. The book of Numbers tells how a priest can make a magic potion that will cause a woman to abort any fetus she is carrying, but only if she has been unfaithful to her husband (Numbers 5:12-31). The potion is to be administered while the priest pronounces a curse.

Conjuring – When King Saul finds himself floundering in a war with the Philistines and can’t get God’s advice through his priests and prophets, he disguises himself, visits a witch and asks her to call up the spirit of Samuel, which she does. The spirit appears. (1 Samuel 28:11–15).

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Numerology –Ancient peoples often attributed special meaning or significance to some numbers, and this pattern can be seen in the Bible. The number 12 (also significant in Babylonian, Zoroastrian and classical Greek religions) stands out. Think of the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles of Jesus. The book of Revelation speaks of 12 pearls, 12 angels, 12×12 (144) righteous virgin men who will reach paradise, and 12 foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem, which has walls that are 12×12 stadia, 12 gates, and a size of 12,000 furlongs. Still today, some Jews and Christians analyze the numbers in the Bible for special hidden meanings.

Spell-casting and curses – In the book of Genesis (30:31-43), Jacob gets his father-in-law to agree that he can keep any spotted sheep and goats, which are uncommon. He then puts spotted sticks in front of the animals whenever they are breeding, causing them to have spotted offspring—ultimately building great flocks and becoming wealthy. In modern times, a breed of piebald sheep in England are called Jacob sheep, after the story.

Although the Bible specifically prohibits sorcery—casting spells to harm people (see, especially, Deuteronomy 18:10-11)—some of God’s messengers do just that, and they seem to do so with God’s approval. In the Hebrew book of 2 Kings (2:23-25), for example, the Prophet Elisha calls down a black magic curse on 42 boys who are taunting him, and they are killed by a bear. In the New Testament book of Acts, Paul similarly kills two people by cursing them (Acts 5:9-10) and, in another story, makes one go blind (Acts 13:6-12). Jesus himself curses a fig tree so that it withers and dies (Mark 11:12-25).

Magical healings—Miracle healings performed by Jesus are an integral part of the gospel stories. Like many other kinds of magic in the Bible, these would have fit patterns familiar at the time. From the standpoint of modern trinitarian theology in which Jesus is an avatar of God almighty, he could have eradicated an entire category of malaise like leprosy or blindness. Instead, the Jesus of the gospel writers performs healings on people in front of him. Often he cures with words or touch. One time he makes mud out of dirt and spit and then pastes it onto the eyes of a blind man (John 9:6).

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Transmutation, alchemy—Turning one substance into another is another common form of magic, which Jesus performs by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). The Roman Catholic Church will later claim that the ritual of Eucharist turns wine and bread into flesh and blood.

Magic by any other name is magic all the same.

This list just scratches the surface on biblical magic. In the Old Testament, incantations and rituals fend off evil and human sacrifice alters the course of war. Signs and wonders abound, as do curses. Supernatural messengers convey warnings and promises. And God’s chosen people develop an elaborate set of dietary and sanitary rituals aimed at avoiding divine wrath.

Are these stories of miracles? Some Christians might protest that they are different. But were any of the above to occur in modern life, the Church would most certainly proclaim that a miracle had occurred—either that or black magic.

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As I have said before, separating miracle from magic creates a distinction without a difference, save in the mind of a person who thinks that one comes from God and the other does not. From the time of the early Church through the present, Christians have rejected magic that leaders perceive as drawing power from other religions or occult practices, while at the same time embracing the same kinds of magic when the source of power is claimed to be the Christian God.

In the Middle Ages, chards of the Gethsemane cross and bits of foreskin from the baby Jesus were bought and sold in European markets and sometimes ensconced in elaborate reliquaries of silver and gold. In the minds of believers, objects that had touched Jesus acted as conduits for answered prayer. This common kind of superstition is known as magical contagion. Similarly, believers wore amulets bearing protective symbols like embossed images of patron saints or the cross necklace, which is now often worn more as a social marker—a way of communicating that one belongs to the tribe of Christians.

Medieval Christian beliefs blended the supernatural worldview of the Ancient Near East with local superstitions, as when a believer would make the sign of the cross after seeing a black cat or use holly and mistletoe to celebrate the birth of Christ. Statues of Jesus, Mary and saints became pilgrimage destinations—places of particular spiritual power and locations for miraculous healings akin to more ancient temples and oracles. Echoes of these beliefs and behaviors continue to the present, even though the significance of some has faded. The domain of the miraculous has shrunk, but it has not gone away.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.


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