Sorcery, Superstition, and Credibility (Exodus)

When God gives Moses the law, he explicitly instructs the Israelites to kill sorceresses (Ex. 22:18). Today, we know that sorcery has no real power. Why would an all-knowing God be concerned about it? Perhaps it’s really a commandment intended to keep his people from straying. But why attack the symptom when you can eliminate the cause? God (or Moses or Aaron) should simply demonstrate that sorcerers are simply charlatans. Well…

God actually had an opportunity to do this with the Egyptians. During the plagues, Pharaoh had sorcerers and magicians who duplicated Moses’ feats of turning a staff into a snake (Ex. 7:11-12), turning water into blood (Ex. 7:22), and bringing forth some frogs (Ex. 8:7). They eventually were stumped with the plague of gnats and gave up. Moses and Aaron could have exposed, perhaps with a little divine help and insight, the magicians’ methods of duplicating the plagues. Instead God chose to escalated things.

It’s easy now to think of the Pharaoh’s sorcerers as magicians in the modern sense. They didn’t have any real power because, well magic isn’t real, and only God can break the rules. They must have been illusionists, performing slight of hand to amuse and impress. But Exodus never makes this claim. It appears that the authors think sorcery is a real thing.

The methods of Moses and Aaron even seem a bit magical. God uses their staves and raised hands for bringing plagues, crossing the Red Sea, bringing forth water from a rock, and winning a battle against the Amalekites. This last one, in particular, is peculiar because the Israelites’ success in battle depends upon Moses being able to hold his arms up for the duration of the fight. His assistants, Aaron and Hur, actually hold them up for him at one point to ensure victory (Ex. 17:8-16). This seems a little arbitrary, even for God. Maybe we shouldn’t take it literally? Still, Moses having to pray to/glorify God continuously because any pause gave the Amalekites the advantage sounds a bit like a magical incantation. Or superstition.

Of course, we know that today there’s no such thing as magic. Spells are either hollow words or illusions, sorcerers can’t really call on gods or Satan to do anything real in a physical sense, and witches are just social outcasts that fell in with a bad crowd during high school. Why should we believe the authors’ account of plagues and miracles if they sincerely believed in sorcery, something that is so easily refuted by empiricism? By treating the “secret arts” as a matter of fact and reality, the supposed god-inspired authors of Exodus fail to demonstrate any transcendent knowledge of how the universe actually works. It’s not the first time the Bible’s credibility has been damaged in this way, and will certainly not be the last.

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