Magic is based on the assumption that one can achieve desired results through the recitation of proper formulas or by the performance of certain prescribed actions. In most cases, the effect sought is something that will either harm others (especially an enemy or one who is a potential threat) or ward off harm that an opponent may be plotting. The essential feature for success is to repeat the formulaic words or actions exactly. Magic is evident in many cultures, ancient and modern, and was especially prevalent in the second century CE and subsequent centuries, as the abundance of Greek magical papyri attest.
In the Hebrew Bible, magic can be associated with disbelief in the power and purpose of Yahweh. Thus, in Genesis 41 the power and wisdom of the God of Joseph are contrasted sharply with the inability of Pharaoh's wise men and magicians to understand his dream. The God who is in control of the world and of history discloses through Joseph what his intention is, thereby thoroughly discrediting the Egyptian magicians and diviners. A similar contest takes place in Exodus 7, where the diviners and magicians gathered by Pharaoh are able to change rods into snakes, as Aaron did, but Aaron's rod‐become‐snake swallows all the others. The clear implication is that God's power and purpose are stronger than the powers of the Egyptian magicians. Magical practices are prohibited in the Law of Moses (Lev. 19.26). The contrast between Yahweh's power and the claims of the magicians is set out in Balaam's song (Num. 23.23), where after recounting God's acts in delivering his people from Egypt, he declares, “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘See what God has done!’ ”
The historical and prophetic books contain occasional denunciations of those who practice magic. King Manasseh of Judah practiced soothsaying and augury, burned his son as an offering, and consulted mediums and wizards (2 Kings 21.6; 2 Chron. 33.6). An important dimension of this kind of occult practice, as we can infer from the prophets, was divination. This was a means of direct determination of the divine will, usually by the interpretation of some object (perceived as a sign) such as a marked stone or the entrails of a sacrificial animal. Jeremiah groups together false prophets, soothsayers, diviners, and sorcerers as those to whom Judah must not turn for counsel in the face of exile and deportation (Jer. 27.9). Similar warnings are given in Ezekiel 13 and Malachi 3.5. The frequency of references to this practice attests to the continuing appeal that magic and divination held for leaders and populace, and points up the sharp difference that the legal and prophetic traditions of Israel saw between these occult practices and Yahweh's determination of his will for his people.
In the New Testament, the prophecies, visions, and miracles of Jesus are set within the framework of the present evidence of God's rule, rather than as performances of magic, as has sometimes been asserted. The gospel narratives are characterized by a virtual absence of the formulas and techniques of magic (with the description of the healings by Jesus in the gospel of Mark being a partial exception). Encounters with magic and magicians are explicitly mentioned only in Acts, where their work is denounced (Acts 8.9–24) and the perpetrator is struck blind (Acts 13.8–9).
In the Law of Moses there were prescribed certain means by which the divine will could be communicated. These include the Urim and Thummim, the ephod and the teraphim. The inability of scholars to agree on the translation of these terms is an indication of uncertainty as to how these items were used and understood. The Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28.30; Num. 27.21) were probably a set of dice or flat stones that were marked in such a way as to indicate “yes” or “no” when thrown down by the priest in order to ascertain God's will in a specific case. The ephod (a sacred garment, perhaps with some special adornment or attachment; 1 Sam. 14.18, 41) and the teraphim (portable representations of deities; Gen. 31; Hos. 3.4–5; Ezek. 21.21) were also consulted by priests and others in order to discover the divine plan at a crucial juncture in personal or national history. The Israelites' persistence in consulting diviners and sorcerers is given as one of the chief reasons for their being carried off to Babylon (2 Kings 17.17). Yet Ezra 2.63 (= Neh. 7.65) seems to indicate that the use of Urim and Thummim to learn God's will was to be resumed after the return of Israel from the exile.
The attitude toward diviners in the New Testament is unambiguous: their capacity to discern is the result of their being possessed by evil spirits, as Paul's exorcism of the soothsaying spirit that possessed the young slave woman in Acts 16 shows. The subsequent miracle of deliverance, whereby Paul and Silas are released from prison by divine intervention in the form of an earthquake and a loosening of their bonds, demonstrates for the author of Acts that God is the protector of his own.
Howard Clark Kee