Magic and Sorcery


Scope of the terms.

In its widest sense magic is the attempt to influence persons and events by recourse to superhuman powers: it is “the science of the occult.” The word derives from the Magi, a priestly caste in Media whose functions have largely been associated with “magic” ever since. They claimed to mediate between gods and men, conducted sacrifices, supervised the disposal of the dead, interpreted dreams, omens, and celestial phenomena, and foretold the future (see Magi). “Magic” came into the Gr. world from Persia and thence into the Rom.; gradually it acquired a pejorative sense, which the word “sorcery” has possessed to an even greater degree. The large number of Heb. terms for the various magical practices are noticed under III.

Traditionally, “black” magic is distinguished from “white” magic. The former is a means of invoking evil upon one’s enemies, with the aid of evil spirits, curses and spells: it presupposes malevolent powers who are willing to be manipulated. “White” magic postulates benevolent powers through whom good ends can be achieved and evil spells undone. In a well-known definition Frazer wrote, “Magic is a kind of savage logic, an elementary species of reasoning, based on similarity, contiguity and contrast” (Golden Bough I. 61). This often is compared with the systematic procedures of science.

Magic in Assyria, Egypt and Palestine.

The Hebrews are portrayed in the OT within a world in which magic had been practiced for many centuries. The Pers. Magi were, in fact, relative late-comers.

Assyria and Babylonia.

In Sumero-Akkadian folklore, gods as well as men needed the services of magic: thus, in the Babylonian “Creation Epic” Ea-Enki was the “Lord of Incantation,” and his son Marduk defeated the female deity Tiamat because his spells were more potent than hers. Handbooks have survived which list a wide range of errors which bring evil on men, with appropriate rites of purification (see E. Reiner, Surpu, A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations [1958]). A manual “Maglu” similarly prescribes ritual for warding off the effects of black magic. The cult of divination was highly developed: tablets survive describing many omens observable in the heavens, in human events, in the flight of birds and the organs of animals. Hence the reference in Nahum to Assyria as “graceful and of deadly charms” (3:4).


Here magic had been equally prominent. It was under the patronage of the leading gods, Thoth and Isis, and papyri provide abundant detail. Magic was learned in temple schools (“the House of Life”) and priesthoods devoted esp. to the art. The lore was extended to the dead, who needed their own magical equipment to preserve them in the next life. The manual “Instructions for King Merikare” (c. 2200 b.c.) shows how closely magic was linked with medicine in Egypt. The interpretation of dreams was a highly sophisticated art, and Egyp. magicians were also renowned as wonder-workers, the evidence of their extraordinary feats (going back to the third millennium) being recorded in the “Tales of the Early Magicians” (see A. H. Gardiner, HERE viii. 262-269 for six categories of Egyp. magic).


As in Assyria and Babylonia, so in early Canaanite epics both divine and human magic was practiced. In the “Epic of Baal,” for example, the victory of Mot over Baal is reversed by the goddess Anath by magical means: and in the “Legend of Keret,” king of Ugarit, the god El carries out elaborate rituals to restore the king to health. Other epics mention the practice of augury and astrology by women. Evidence of Canaanite magic is relatively plentiful in the OT, and will be summarized under III.

The Old Testament and magic.

In the light of this universal phenomenon, its impact on the life of Israel was inevitable. The OT is clear-cut in its message: as in other areas of their spiritual development, the uniqueness and power of the revelation of Yahweh were here apparent.

The reality of occult powers is acknowledged, but magic and sorcery are consistently forbidden. A notable passage is Deuteronomy 18:10-14: “There shall not be found among you...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. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord:...these nations, which you are about to dispossess, give heed to soothsayers and to diviners: but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you so to do” (cf. Lev 19:26) This v. incorporates practically all the OT types of magic, except those practiced by Egyptians and Babylonians. Two other words ḥrsm and ḳspm of Ugaritic and Akkad. provenance, are used to cover magic and sorcery in general (e.g. Exod 22:18; 2 Kings 9:22).

The faithful Jew was trained from childhood to regard as dangerous superstition much of the religious practice around him; it could not co-exist with the pure worship of Yahweh. Those who became mediums or wizards were to be put to death (Lev 20:27). The same uncompromising attitude is found in the prophets (e.g. “And when they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”) (attacking necromancy) (Isa 8:19). “So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers....For it is a lie which they are prophesying to you” (against divination) (Jer 27:9, 10). “Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls!” (against witches, Ezek 13:18). Isaiah 3:18-23 contains a long list of the finery of women which includes several articles used as charms—“amulets,” “headbands,” and “crescents.”

How closely those standards were adhered to, varied with individuals and with the obedience of their rulers to the will of God. It is not surprising to find various practices recorded in the OT which are either magical or have magical overtones. Some pagan customs appear to have been adapted to a new and spiritual significance. Thus, a “mezuzah” or scroll containing a prayer was set on doorposts not to ward off evil spirits, but to mark the submission of the house to God. Clothes had to bear blue threads twined in their fringes, to bring to mind the words of God: cornfields and vineyards had their corners left unharvested, not to feed the spirits of the harvest, but for the sake of the poor man and the stranger.

Genesis contains some instructive examples: 27:18ff.—the power of the spoken word and the irrevocability of blessings and cursings; 30:14-18—the use of mandrakes as a love-philter: 30:37-41—Jacob’s peeled rods in connection with animal breeding. Of special note are the “teraphim,” figurines which were virtually household gods and used for divination: thus 31:20ff.—Laban the Aramean, with which may be compared Judges 17:1-6 (Micah’s rites), 1 Samuel 19:13-16 (Michal’s deception, where a larger image is suggested). “Teraphim” are condemned everywhere as a piece of Canaanite idolatry. In the narrative of Joseph (Gen 41:8ff.) the special gift of dream interpretation given to him is to be noted, surpassing that of Pharaoh’s magicians.

In Exodus, the encounter between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh’s magicians and sorcerers (chs. 7, 8) accords with evidence of wonder-working magic in Egypt. The sign of the serpent rod and the plagues, however, were not merely given to outdo Egyp. wizardry; they demonstrated the omnipotence of the God of Israel—“on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord” (12:12). In Numbers the story of Balaam is instructive (chs. 22-24). The Moabite Balak hires Balaam, who was a diviner (22:7) accustomed to “look for omens” (24:1). He was to injure the Israelites by his curses; however, he is granted prophetic powers and blesses them instead, under the guidance of God (23:20, “he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it”).

In 2 Kings occurs the best examples of royal attitudes to magic. Jezebel is condemned as a sorceress (9:22) and Manasseh’s apostasy included Baal worship, human sacrifice, soothsaying and augury, and dealing with mediums and wizards (21:3-6). By contrast, Josiah his grandson “put away the mediums and the wizards and the teraphim and the idols and all the abominations...” (23:24).

Finally, the Book of Daniel reflects the opposition of Jewish faith and Babylonian magic. The young captives surpassed in skill all Nebuchadnezzar’s magicians, particularly in the interpretation of dreams and visions (1:17-20; at 2:2 sorcerers and Chaldeans are added). Daniel as chief of the whole class is given the name Belteshazzar (4:8—“protect his life”: the name itself may be an invocation) but declares the superiority of the “God in heaven” as revealer of mysteries (2:28). It is notable that astrology (“Chaldeans” here) was not practiced in early Jewish history, and is indeed belittled by Isaiah as part of Babylonian error: “let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you” (Isa 47:13; cf. Jer 10:2).

The NT and magic.

The OT repugnance for magic was inherited by the Christian Church, in a world which was as thoroughly imbued with such practices as ever. The epistles therefore echo OT denunciations: Paul lists sorcery among the “works of the flesh” which bar men from God’s kingdom (Gal 5:19), and in the somber description of 2 Timothy 3:1-9, the godless are compared to the magicians Jannes and Jambres who withstood Moses (v. 13, RSV “deceivers” may also describe sorcerers). In Revelation sorcery appears among those practices which merit judgment (9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15).


T. W. Davies, Magic, Divination and Demonology Among the Hebrews and Their Neighbours (1898); M. Gaster, Jewish Magic, HERE viii. 300-305; K. F. Smith, Greek and Roman Magic, viii. 269-289; G. Coutenau, La magie chez les Assyriens et les Babyloniens (1947); M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (1952), 107-164; A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (1956).