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Magic Then and Now



By David Kowalski

While writing a short paper a few years ago on magic in the Ancient Near East, I was struck by how universal and timeless the human tendencies are that one finds in these ancient practices. I have reproduced below a short segment from that paper along with the observations I made regarding similarities to modern spirituality -- even in the church.

Magic coexisted comfortably with nearly all Ancient Near Eastern religions. In polytheistic religion there is no single, sovereign deity, and the gods could behave capriciously. Consequently, a purely submissive and trusting posture toward deity was not practical in one’s effort to secure the favor of the supernatural realm. Thus, polytheism tended to breed a mentality that was in some ways manipulative of the supernatural.

Some scholars believe that worship in many Ancient Near Eastern religions was itself a form of manipulation as the worshiper sought to flatter the gods and goddesses into acting according to the worshiper's desires. There was no ethicizing of sacrifice as there was in the Old Testament.

Sacrifice in Ancient Near Eastern religions was simply a technique to appease the deity and garner his or her favor. Likewise, prayer tended to be less a trusting personal communication with the deity than it was the mastery of the right kind of praying which would be efficacious because of the skill of the one reciting the prayer.

Most Ancient Near Eastern peoples also believed that demons were very active in the world and it seems they always saw this activity as malevolent, although this demonic malevolence was not seen as deception or moral corruption (as in the New Testament).

Demonic malevolence was seen in one's unpleasant circumstances. Unpleasant circumstances  were commonly seen as a spiritual issue that the individual had to address in the supernatural realm. In this regard, magic was frequently mixed with one’s worship of and prayer to the deities. As the worshiper appeased the deities and sought their protection, he or she might also employ magical techniques to ward off malevolent spirits, and secure a more comfortable situation in life.

Still another factor that led to magical practices was the common belief that there existed some kind of supernatural force that could be used to one's advantage. In some cultures this force was seen as animistic or  "personal" (To the Western mind a personal force seems like an oxymoron, but animistic cultures have lived with this apparent contradiction for many centuries), while in others the force was viewed in a dynamistic or impersonal way. These forces were seen as subject to manipulation by those who mastered the proper, mystical techniques.

These techniques involved either saying or doing the things required to control the force so as to ward off evil, and to bring health and prosperity. The right spoken words were seen as powerful in the supernatural realm for those who mastered the religious science of incantation.

Natural objects could also be useful to the magician. Some objects were believed to possess inherent magical powers and it was believed that other objects could be charged with such power through incantations or spells. These charms or amulets would either be worn, or placed prominently in a dwelling or place of business to ward off evil and bring prosperity.

Another technique that was used was sympathetic magic, in which the magician performed some natural act that was analogous to the desired, supernatural result. One common form of sympathetic magic was to burn something in effigy, which was thought to bring the destruction of the person or object represented. In white magic the thing destroyed would be something impersonal and malevolent such as a disease, while in black magic the thing represented by the effigy could be one’s enemy.

Divination was a magical technique used for prediction rather than manipulation. Diviners were thought to be especially skilled in interpreting omens that indicated impending evil. The impending evil could then be warded off or undone by the proper spell.

If no omen presented itself one could be solicited from the gods. Sheep intestines were often used toward this end. Astrologers studied the heavenly bodies for omens to interpret and proficient diviners would interpret the content of dreams for possible omens. Other methods of divination included communication with the dead, gazing into plates filled with oil or water in order to see visions, and ecstatic, prophetic oracles.

All forms of magic and divination were forbidden in the Old Testament, as can be seen in Deuteronomy 18:9-13 (NIV):

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD , and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God.

Nevertheless, the Israelites were sometimes guilty of such practices and they were rebuked by the prophets for this (Jer 27:9, Ezek 13:18, Mal 3:5). It also seems the Israelite use of phylacteries (a form of amulet) was possibly more influenced by magical practices in the Ancient Near East than it was by Scripture. Two Jewish, magical handbooks (The Book of Mysteries and The Sword of Moses) contained instructions for the preparation of amulets.

Although Exodus 13:9,6 ; Deuteronomy 6:8; Proverbs 3:3, 6:21, and 7:3 were often appealed to as divine justification for the use of amulets, it seems that none of these passages truly supports the practice. God used certain "binding" and "tying" metaphors as he exhorted his people to be ever mindful of his word but he did not endorse the thought that physically tying scripture portions to one's body would accomplish anything spiritual.

It is amazing how little magic practices have changed over the centuries and it is remarkable how persistent and popular it has been. Terminology has changed but the heart of magic remains the same. I think the largest reason for the enduring popularity of magic is its appeal to the flesh. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:20 that sorcery or witchcraft is one of the works of the flesh.

Magic ultimately exalts self and makes humble trust in God unnecessary. When one is in control of forces and powers (or techniques to manipulate the gods) one does not have to depend upon the sovereign and unearned benevolence of any deity. The magician acts as his or her own little god with god-like powers.

It is disconcerting to realize the degree to which some elements of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have succumbed to the temptation to turn from trusting to manipulating. It is much easier on the flesh to trust in one’s own ability to control their circumstances through the power of the tongue (positive confession) than it is to trust one's life in the hands of God.

Additionally, when we approach the practice of prayer in the flesh, we do not humbly entreat God. Instead, we master the art of "powerful praying."  We see ourselves as "praying down" a blessing rather than receiving answers to requests from a gracious and loving God.

Visualization becomes an appealing form of sympathetic magic to the fleshly, and burning a debt in effigy seems a better approach to the flesh than living wisely and trusting God. Many more parallels could be offered.

There is nothing new under the sun. The flesh has not changed over the centuries and many of God's people still prefer mastery of techniques and manipulation of powers to simple trust in the living God.

_________________________

Faith as an external force and human ability to manipulate the supernatural by words are beliefs common in pagan magic, but are entirely foreign to biblical faith. – W. E. Nunnally

"There are wonders in prayer because there are wonders in God. Prayer has no talismanic influence. It is no mere fetish. It has no so-called powers of magic. It is simply making requests to God for things agreeable to His will in the name of Christ. It is yielding our requests to a Father, who knows all things, who has control of all things, and who is able to do all things. Prayer is infinite ignorance trusting in the wisdom of God. Prayer is the voice of need crying out to Him who is inexhaustible in resources. Prayer is helplessness reposing with childlike confidence on the word of its Father in heaven." – E. M. Bounds

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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This post was last updated: Jan. 28, 2013