THE WORLD HAS GONE CRAZY OVER THE HARRY POTTER PHENOMENON. Lots of people, especially book dealers, love it. Some people swear it's the best thing for stimulating children's reading since, well, who knows. Many Christians condemn it roundly as stimulating interest in the occult arts. Some Christian parents won't even allow their children to learn "magic tricks", believing it thrusts the thin edge of the wedge into their childrens' impressionable minds.
All of which raises the knotty and intriguing question of the mind of God on magic, witchcraft and demonism. Indeed, God demanded the execution of "witches" (Ex. 22:18). But what was He on about? Would He condone the death of untold thousands of men, women and children during the Middle Ages for allegedly practicing black magic, or will He hold someone, somewhere, accountable, in the day of judgment, for mass murder?
Scripture roundly condemns the dark arts of sorcery . But does anybody have the power to produce genuine wonders, the real thing? Probably all Christians would agree with the sentiment expressed in the article in the Illustrated Bible Dictionary on the subject of magic, when it says,
There is no doubt that magic and sorcery are not always mere superstitions, but have a reality behind them.
"Reality" stands for the demon world, which we should avoid like rabid squirrels. Indeed, those who dabble in the occult are putting themselves in grave danger. But the theological question (as distinct from ethical considerations) we are concerned with here is whether or not demons actually empower some people to perform signs and wonders. This debate is not new. Let me quote from the Stone's Chumash on the source of the ability Pharaoh's magicians had to duplicate Moses' miracle of turning his rod into a snake. It is rather long, but please stay the course, as it puts the two sides of the debate simply and clearly:
This raises the question of whether Pharaoh's sorcerers had any real power. Rambam maintains that all magic, even that discussed in Scripture, is sleight of hand and that only foolish and ignorant people believe in it. The other classic commentators, however. dispute his contention. According to them, the sorcery mentioned in the Torah was real, and its practitioners knew how to alter nature and foretell the future by utilizing powers built into Creation. God created the universe so that earthly events are regulated by angels and other heavenly forces. God also provided that by the use of various sacred or profane incantations, people could harness these heavenly forces and thereby override the laws of nature. This is how the Egyptian magicians and others whose feats are related in Scripture and the Talmud were able to perform miracles. It was because of this ability that false prophets were able to mislead people into believing in the power of idols.
Who is right? Rambam or "the other classic commentators?" We maintain that Rambam was correct, except to emphatically assert that those who believe otherwise are not at all "foolish and ignorant people".
But as we seek to unravel this fascinating question, please make a distinction that others often fail to make. The above excerpt speaks of the ability to "alter nature and foretell the future" as they were one and the same. As we will see, they are very different from each other. Performing wonders is called witchcraft or sorcery in Scripture. Foretelling the future is called divination or soothsaying. Nobody can truly perform wonders, but some few can foretell the future. Evil spirits cannot perform wonders on behalf of any human. But they can communicate with certain people, showing them hidden things.
Settling the Debate
Let's consider this whole issue now, dealing with sorcery and divination separately for the sake of clarity and accuracy.
Let's discuss witchcraft first. The Bible provides a fascinating glimpse into the realm of sorcery. In the days of the early apostles, a man named Simon, later called the "Magus", claimed to have psychic powers. If ever there was a "genuine" sorcerer, Simon was it:
But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, "This man is that power of God which is called Great." And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed (Acts 8:9-13).
Simon, evidently, was a charlatan, a practitioner of trickery. A great magician, perhaps with the same skill as someone like David Copperfield. But he had no supernatural powers whatever. His impotence is proven by the fact that when he saw real miracles, he was amazed ! He assumed that the apostles were just better magicians than himself, and was willing to pay them a large sum for their tricks of the trade. Such people are just crooks, preying on the superstitions of the gullible.
Another passage describes the sorcery of one Elymas as consisting of "deceit and villainy" (RSV) or "deceit and trickery (NIV). See Acts 13:6-10. These two passages help us see that sorcery is trickery and deceit, and is not a matter of truly tapping supernatural power. If sorcery is merely trickery, why, then, does Scripture condemn it in such dramatic terms?
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers , and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
The Old Testament echoes the same warning for all who might consider practicing the deceitful art of sorcery:
There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer (Deut. 18:10).
A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them (Lev. 20:27).
Why such a terrible fate for those who practice sorcery (or divination), who claim special power which they don't have (or, in the case of divination, may have)? Is it because such people could actually bring ruin to a brother or sister by hexing them? Not at all! There are two reasons why God utterly condemns such practices. First, people who indulge in such behavior are hurting themselves drastically through seeking unto evil spirits for assistance. They are rebelling against God (see 1 Samuel 15:23), who alone is the helper of Israel (Ps. 146:5). And second, because their motivation is to deceive (Rev. 18:23). They deceive people so that they can control them and rob them; they are liars and thieves.
To understand what it is that God hates means freedom from fear of being hexed. Nobody can align himself with a spirit power in order to bring harm upon another. Not a hint of a suggestion appears in Scripture that evil spirits can harm us without God's express permission, as in the case of Job.
Some people appear to have occult power. Let's put it this way; if David Copperfield, or any other skilled magician, was a con man, he could easily gain a huge following for himself. The only difference between a magician and a sorcerer is that the magician makes no claims to any special power while the sorcerer does. Magicians who use sleight of hand to bewilder their audience are merely entertainers. David Copperfield utilizes the old "hand is faster than the eye" routine, together with optical illusions to work wonders. But they are wonders of clever planning and execution, not wonders of power.
Some may wonder about the ability of the Egyptian magicians to copy some of the miracles God did in the time of Moses. A close examination of the account shows that what they did was not that clever at all. If, for any reason, people give themselves over to deception, they can be persuaded by fairly crude trickery. Clever trickery would, of course, work better. Probably nothing more than standard yet skilfully-employed techniques of magic lie behind the apparent wonders to be wrought in the future by the man of sin described in 2 Thessalonians 2:9:
Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish,
One could easily misread this passage to suggest that Satan actually provides the power to perform miracles. But it doesn't say that at all. What it says is that Satan is the spirit force working in the life and thinking of this evil individual, in just the same way as he worked in Judas's mind, leading him to seek the death of Jesus. But the power the man exercises is human power; the signs and wonders are human-devised. They are plainly branded "lying" wonders, not genuine wonders. However, some see here genuine wonders, and that the reference to lying is to be taken as "not bogus but producing false impressions" (NIV comment). But similar references in the book of Revelation emphasize the deceptive nature of the wonders. (See, for instance, Revelation 13:13-14.)
The Power of Evil Spirits
So far we have argued that demons do not work through human beings to produce miracles. More basically, do demons even have power to tamper with nature? Two pericopes that show that demons do seem to have power to work miracles require comment.
In the first, an astounding scene is developed. God is seen holding a heavenly happening, in which angels "presented themselves before the Lord". Satan sneaks in (as if God didn't know) and crows loudly that God is losing the struggle to gain converts. (God was not seeking converts then.) God reminds Satan of His mighty servant Job. Satan rebuts by suggesting that Job was a fair weather servant. Strike him where it hurts, and he would quickly curse God. Note God's response:
And the Lord said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand." So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord (Job 1:12).
There can be no doubt about it. Satan had power to do great things. The second passage of note is found in the book of Revelation:
.for they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty (16:14).
Sorcery and Creation
To set these passages in their interpretive context, we have to consider the much larger question of the meaning of creation itself. In pagan religions, natural phenomena are usually seen as the arena of activity of the gods.
The notion that some people can bend psychic forces (evil spirits) to their will, and perform wonders, flies square in the face of the majestic doctrine of creation. Though we see from the passage in Job that Satan has some limited power over matter, we need to notice two vital points.
First, he was never allowed to decide for himself when he could exercise that power. Don't misunderstand. Satan is allowed to use all his wiles, and to "broadcast" his thoughts, in attempting, and quite successfully too, to tempt. But to manipulate the immutable created laws of God is entirely different. God gave him specific permission on this one occasion. To suggest that God is being visited by a constant stream of gremlins begging and receiving permission to hex a certain person, or to turn water into blood, strikes at the very heart of the biblical doctrine of creation.
Second, to an outside observer, there was no miracle. Just a most unfortunate confluence of natural phenomena.
So in this account we see rare permission being given to the King of the Demons to work within the created laws of God to bring about a concentration of natural phenomena. In sum, sorcerers with real power don't exist. The man of sin who comes ". according to the working of Satan, with all power." has the power of human support. The lying wonders he works involve, we may guess, a mix of scientific whizz-bangery with the magician's sleight of hand and optical illusion. Satan is working indeed. He works with peoples' thinking processes. At the time prophesied, he will stir people up to support the man of sin; thus Satan is responsible for this man's power.
The second passage quoted above (Rev. 16:14), which speaks of demonic spirits "working signs" (simeion) is intriguing. In light of what we have just said about the Job and Satan affair, it is highly unlikely that lesser spirits would be given permission to display thaumaturgy. However, even if it does, the context of the end of the age and the fruition of God's prophetic plan finally coming to pass sets it in a unique framework. It cannot be used to "prove" that demons will empower sorcerers to work wonders.
And besides, analysis of the use of the word "sign" shows that although it can refer to a wonder, almost invariably when it does it is found in association with another Greek word "teras". Together, the words are invariably translated "signs and wonder". On its own, it is more likely to refer to some event that signals an important stage in an unfolding process of events, as it is used in Matt 16:2-3:
He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, `It will be fair weather; for the sky is red. 'And in the morning, `It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
He is not speaking here of miracles, except possibly in a secondary way inasmuch as they are the signs of the times. He was chiding the Pharisees for not recognizing the fulfillment of prophecy in his own mighty works and words, indicating a vital phase in God's plan.
So it is most likely that the signs that the demons will perform in leading up to Armageddon are of a different kind than miracles. A possible parallel of the kinds of signs that the demons will perform may be found in I Kings 22:20-23:
.and the Lord said, `Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead?' And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, `I will entice him.' And the Lord said to him, `By what means?' And he said, `I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, `You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.' Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has spoken evil concerning you."
In Revelation 16, too, we see evil spirits "come out of" the mouths of certain individuals to persuade the kings of the earth to go to battle. The conclusion is almost irresistible that the proper exegesis of the "signs" here performed amounts to lofty, blasphemous pronouncements on the part of the three individuals mentioned. It is also possible that, together with this "big talk", the evil spirits inspire the three individuals to marshal their best efforts to produce tricks that will make their previous ones look pallid by comparison.
As with sorcerers, numerous fake diviners put out their shingle. But an important distinction needs to be made between divination and sorcery. Though nobody has access to special power of any kind, some people do receive a special ability by making a pact with the real spirit world. Not an ability to work miracles or influence events, but an ability to communicate with the spirit world and receive information beyond the capacity of the five senses to receive. Divination seeks to discover events without influencing them. In old KJV Scripture diviners are said to have a familiar spirit (see, for example, Leviticus 20:27). In more modern translations they are usually called mediums. A diviner foretells or interprets future events.
Most diviners are fakes. Anciently, "official" divination institutions were established for the purpose of providing help to public officials in making important decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. These institutions were called oracles. There were many of them. The best known today is the Delphic Oracle of Greece, which gradually lost influence in the third century BC.
The Witch of Endor
Scripture, though, shows us that not all futurologists are fakes. Even many medium-busters acknowledge the occasional genuine medium, though they are incapable of explaining the provenance of their power. In short, some genuine clairvoyants can be found. The best known and most exhaustive of all ancient accounts is that of the "witch of Endor". Read it for yourself in I Samuel 28 — a great little read.
An obvious question stems from this account. How does a demon (in this case posing as a dead person) actually know the future? That question cannot be answered with certitude. One's answer largely depends on one's theology of time. If demons are outside time, then naturally it follows that they are aware of the future within time. But if they are not, then the only way they can know is if God lets them in on the secret.
How some people gain this power while others who want to have it never get it is unclear. But Scripture makes it very clear that Christians should run away screaming from any temptation to get involved with the spirit world:
A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them (Lev. 20:27).
The words here in Hebrew both refer to divination. The first word, "'ob", appears to refer to ghosts, with the idea being that the medium communicates with such a creature. The second word, translated wizard, is "yidoni", and appears to be related to the Hebrew word meaning to know. Thus, he or she is one who divines in order to know the future.
Why is divination so wrong? For two reasons. First, seeking information that God doesn't wish us to have is tantamount to rebellion. And second, and perhaps more importantly, it reflects a pagan concept of the world controlled by evil forces, and therefore obviously not under the sovereign rule of God.
Joseph the Diviner
Why did Joseph divine, some ask?
When they had gone but a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, "Up, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, `Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he divines? You have done wrong in so doing.' .Joseph said to them, "What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that such a man as I can indeed divine?" (Gen. 44:4-5, 15)
As a servant of God he should never have done such a thing. And as a servant of God he didn't do it. But there is no sin in pretending, if it is not for the purpose of deceiving someone to their hurt, but rather for some special purpose, such as awakening someone to their error, as is the case here. David feigned insanity to escape death. And on the road to Emmaus, Jesus Christ pretended to his disciples that he was planning on going further.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further (Luke 24:28).
As any Greek lexicon will show, the phrase translated in RSV as "appeared to be" simply means "pretended". Evidently, "leading people astray" temporarily for their own good does not classify as diabolical deception. Joseph was play-acting temporarily, filling the role of a severe ruler. To add even more majesty and fear to the role, he cast himself as a diviner. He drew his pretence to an end within the same conversation; he was no sadist.
To be continued
Dawn to Dusk publications
Other printed material
On the Web
The book "Jacob's Multi-colored Dream Goats" has two chapters that deal with the topic of magic and sorcery
Floating Navigation Bar
|Edited and expanded copies of this article, in reprint pamphlet form, can be purchased by going to the reprints order page.
As well as reprints, Dawn to Dusk offers books in printed form and on CD-ROM. We mail to anywhere in the world! For more information on what is available, prices, and how to order, click the icon.