NOTE: The following article is taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, pp. 9-15.
From the early origins of the settlement of the Old Testament people in Palestine up to the Babylonian captivity, their religious practices included magic, sorcery, witchcraft, demonology and divination. There is no better evidence for this than the words of the author who recorded the cause for the defeat and exile (in 586 B.C.) of the southern kingdom, Judah:
And he [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, according to the abominable practices of the nations…he rebuilt the high places…he erected the altars for Ba’al…worshipped all the host of heaven…burnt his son as an offering, and practised witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted the mediums and the wizards. [2 Kings 21:2-6]
The situation in the northern kingdom, Israel, was similar. Less than a century and a half before Judah’s downfall, Israel too had gone to exile (in 721 B.C.). And its religious practices also included the magical and divinatory arts.
And…the children of Israel sinned against YHWH their god…and feared other gods…and did secretly things that were not right…and made their sons and daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and sorcery. [2 Kings 17:7-17]
These arts were practiced by various skilled functionaries: the sorcerer, the soothsayer, the medium, the necromancer, the wizard, the charmer, the auger, the diviner, the dream-expert, the seer, the vision-expert, the priest, and the prophet. The importance attached to such qualified practitioners by the Old Testament people is seen in the statement by Isaiah (3:2-3), who places the expert in charms, the skillful magician and the diviner on the same plane as the mighty man and soldier, the judge, the elder, and the prophet. Isaiah was merely stating a known fact—namely, the high prestige that such practitioners enjoyed within their society (cf. also Isa. 8:19). Similarly, when Jeremiah (27:9) tells the public, “do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers or your sorcerers,” he is simply reiterating the importance attached to these practitioners in the life of the people of the state.
Incidentally, Jeremiah’s distinctive use of the second masculine plural form—your—is very significant, for it indicates that there were at least two types of practitioners: the false and the true. When Jeremiah accuses “your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers,” it is obvious that his accusation is not directed against all persons who performed such practices, since he himself was one of them. Rather, Jeremiah was accusing only those whose practices he considered to result in false victims, omens, and oracles, because they were not performed by consulting YHWH.
It was not just the ordinary people who sought help from the skilled functionaries; the kings did likewise. King Manasseh made public use of soothsayers, augers, sorcerers, medium-experts and wizards (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron. 33:6). Similarly, King Ahab had qualified practitioners in his palace who were also experts in the art of cleromancy (1 Kings 20:30-34). Moreover, he consulted some 400 prophets, experts who performed their magical imitative art in order to ensure the success of his mission (1 Kings 22:1-28). That Ahab had 950 prophets who possessed and controlled the mystical knowledge of Ba’al and Asherah (1 Kings 18:19) surely indicates the importance attached to such men by the Israelite sovereigns.
Furthermore, King Saul made use of the services of mediums, wizards, dream-experts, cleromancers, prophets, and necromancers (1 Sam. 14:36-46; 28:3-19). When David succeeded Saul as king he inherited from his predecessor not only the court officials, but also the court experts in magical practices and divinatory arts. He often consulted them, especially in time of national raids and attacks (2 Sam. 5:17-25). On the other hand, King Solomon not only inherited these court experts, but added a host of qualified functionaries whose deities were other than YHWH: Sidonians, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Hittites (1 Kings 11:1-10). These functionaries performed the various magical practices and divinatory arts connected with their respective deities, Ashtoreth, Milcom, Molech and Chemosh. They must have been in sharp conflict with the group who performed their arts in the name of YHWH. More will be said about this conflict presently.
The so-called attempted reforms of both King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4; 2 Chron. 29:3-31:20) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:4-24; 2 Chron. 34:1-7) indicates, at least, how deeply rooted was the belief in the efficacy of magical practices and divinatory arts. But there is more than that! The Old Testament people had built on certain hilltops and valleys, as well as beside various trees, waters, rocks and stones, altars or sanctuaries. It was only natural that the people should continue to go to such “sacred” sites not only to burn incense and worship idols, molten images, and all the host of heaven, but to practice magic, sorcery, human offerings and divination (2 Kings 17:7-18). They persisted in such practices even during Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s so-called reform, and performed the magical customs of the surrounding nations (2 Kings 17:8).
The settling of the Old Testament people in Canaan involved, both culturally and religiously, the establishment of close relations—if not complete fusion—with the native people and the surrounding neighbors:
So the people of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons. And they served their gods…forgetting YHWH their god, and serving the Ba’als and the Asheroth. [Judges 3:5-6]
Thus the practice of magical and divinatory arts in Israel had developed from various sources. Nevertheless there appears to have developed an intense power struggle between those that practiced the art in the name of YHWH and those who practiced in the name of a number of other deities, collectively known as Ba’alim. These latter were regarded as “false” through and through by the former—false deities, false practitioners and false messages (Jer. 14:14; 27:9-10). While the struggle may have existed from the first on a small scale between the practitioners themselves, eventually it came into the open and became a political power struggle on a national scale.
Thus, the reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah should perhaps not be regarded as attempts to abolish magical and divinatory practices, but rather to suppress the so-called false practitioners in favor of true practitioners. Both these two kings used their political powers to overthrow the false functionaries, whose practices were regarded as abominable. In contrast, King Ahab and King Manasseh used all possible means of political pressure to uphold and support such false practitioners. Consequently, these two latter kings “rebuilt the high places…erected the altars for Ba’al and made an Asherah…worshipped all the host of heaven and served them…practised witchcraft and did sorcery, and consulted the medium and the wizards” (2 Kings 21:2-6).
A number of early prophets—Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elisha, Elijah, and a host of seers, dream-experts, priests, and prophets, all tried to suppress the so-called practitioners who used the sacred arts in the name of Ba’alim. Thus, Isaiah (57:5-9) condemned the public not because they practiced the magical rite of cereal offering and libation, but because they exchanged YHWH’s power for other deities (cf. also Ezek. 16:19-22). Again, it was commonly believed by the YHWHistic group that those who consulted “foreign” gods stirred YHWH to jealousy and provoked him to anger (Deut. 32:16).
Furthermore, the YHWHistic group believed that the so-called false practitioners offered sacrifices, not to their respective deities, but to demons (Deut. 32:17). However, much to their frustration, the public continued to seek the practices of these false functionaries.
Consequently, the YHWHistic group strongly opposed and openly condemned those who performed the practices of the art considering them to be not only evil or abominable (Deut. 18:9), but “playing the harlot” (Exod. 34:15-17; Lev. 17:7; 20:2-6; Deut. 31:16; Judges 2:17, 8:33; Psalm 106:39). As a matter of fact the metaphor of harlotry was commonly used by the YHWHistic group who regarded all practices of the art that excluded YHWH as being an improper intercourse, prostitution and fornication (Isa. 1:21; 57:3; Jer. 2:20; 31:1-8; Ezek. 16:15-25; Hos. 2:5; 3:3; 4:15).
It became the strong conviction of the YHWHistic group that the cause of the defeat and exile of the northern kingdom, Israel, and similarly of the southern kingdom, Judah, was that the state and the public performed the practices of the false functionaries (2 Kings 17:7-20; 21:1-14). And if for a moment one were to accept this perspective, then obviously one is not only accepting that magic and divination were integral parts of the society, but is in fact saying that the false functionaries had the upper hand and the majority of the society sought their aid, since “YHWH sent them to exile.”
Of course, both groups engaged in various forms of the art and their practice was widespread. Many feared, worshipped, and through the help of practitioners, offered sacrifices with libation to numerous deities and demons (Deut. 32:17). Plagues, disease, and all sorts of mishap were attributed to demons and evil spirits (Ps. 78:49; 91:6; Job 3:8; cf. also Isa. 13:21; 30:6; 34:8-15). Not only were protective amulets worn in order to ward off evil but recourse was made to magical practices in order to remove or transfer the contagion.
Besides averting evil powers and influences, many performed various practices of a magical nature in order to seek the favor of deities and demons, or appease their wrath (for example, when social or religious taboos had been broken). One of the significant apotropaic acts was aimed at the protection of the living from harm which could be caused by the spirit of the departed.
The effectiveness of the “binding spell” and of the various genres of imitative magic performed either for the removal of evil, misfortune and disease, or for the purpose of war-victory, or to avert vengeance, or even to appease hostile spirits, will be discussed in the following pages. Similarly, the symbolic imitative performance of the prophets, as well as the restrictions and prohibitions imposed upon the society to protect themselves from hostile spirits, mysterious powers and evil influences will be cited to indicate that such magical practices were not only frequently performed but favorably looked upon as legitimate enterprises.
Thus in order to avert evil powers and influences, to appease the wrath or seek the favor of deities and demons, the Old Testament people resorted to magical practices. To find solutions to personal or national distress, to solve disputed questions, to discover the will of deities regarding various affairs, the people sought omens and resorted to the art of divination. Numerous qualified functionaries, such as sorcerers, soothsayers, seers, diviners, prophets and priests, all had important roles within the society, and their expert services in magical and divinatory practices were sought both by the public and by the state.
The art of cleromancy (divination by lot-casting) was considered a proper method of obtaining decisions regarding various affairs, assignment of duties, discovering guilty individuals and solving disputed questions. Again, strange as it may appear to us, there is not the least doubt that the Old Testament people firmly believed that certain expert functionaries had the power to evoke and communicate with the dead—an art known as necromancy. Moreover, they thought that a person could become the unconscious agent of a spirit of deity so that any pronouncement by such a person would instantly be seized by those skilled in the art as a clue of good or evil omen—the art of cledonomancy.
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament people believed that dreams and visions were messages emanating from supernatural powers, benevolent or malevolent spirits and deities. The “dream-expert,” the “vision-expert” (gazer), the “seer” and the “prophet” were among those who attached great importance to dreams and visions, regarding them as vehicles by which divine intentions were revealed. Such an art is known as oneiromancy.
Not all occult techniques, however, were considered approved methods to inquire of God. Inquiries performed by “a diviner, a soothsayer, an auger…a medium…or a necromancer” were unconditionally banned (Deut. 18:10; Lev. 20:6, 27). Despite this prohibition, however, and despite the efforts of King Saul (1 Sam. 28:3, 9) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:24) to eliminate from the society these so-called illegitimate practices of inquiry, the Old Testament people consulted “diviners, soothsayers, augers and mediums” (2 Kings 17:16-17; 21:6; Isa. 8:19; Jer. 27:9; Hos. 4:12).
Thus it is difficult to conceive how the Old Testament people regarded the practice of magic and divination “evil.” Probably, what was abominable to a certain group was that such practices were not done in the name of YHWH (who, in their view, was the only powerful and true deity) but in the name of other deities (who were absolutely false deities). It seems that magic and divination were not only permissible, but were legitimate religious enterprises—if performed correctly in the name of YHWH. Many naturally confused the issue with YHWH and performed their practices in the name of other deities. This must have brought them into sharp conflict, opposition, and condemnation. In fact, in the struggle, even political power was used (such as the reform of Josiah) in order to repress such non-YHWHistic activities.
At any rate, magic and divination were integral parts of the society and numerous practices were performed by skill functionaries.