Multifaith Mashup: Magic in the Bible and Islamic Stories

by Vicki Garlock on May 7, 2014

Aaron Rod

Rod of Aaron Devours Other Rods
Wikimedia: Painting by James Tissot

My school-aged son and I attended a magic show last Friday afternoon. It was…well…magical. This guy was pulling wine bottles out of scarves and marked $100 bills out of uncut lemons. He wasn’t, really, but he was! He was part of a team of magicians that performed a series of shows and offered various classes last weekend here in Asheville. It was billed as Weekend of Wonder, and the solo show my son and I attended was truly amazing. Balls were moving around beneath over-turned cups. Coins were apparently shoved through glass. And that five of spades was disappearing and reappearing in all sorts of places!

Once I recovered from my baffled state, I started thinking about magic stories found in the texts associated with the Abrahamic religions. As many people know, there are several passages in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that warn against having anything to do with “the black arts.” These passages admonish against human sacrifice, fortune-telling, and necromancy (communicating with the dead), but they also argue against “sorcery,” which is pretty close to what we think of today as “magic.” The point seems to be that one should trust in Yahweh/God/Allah and not in humans claiming to have special powers that could very well derive from the devil. Although verses are scattered throughout the Bible, this passage from Deuteronomy is both clear and comprehensive.

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so. (Deuteronomy 18:10-14)

This strong statement is interesting in light of the fact that, in the exodus saga, Moses and Aaron performed numerous acts that were clearly touted as supernatural. And the Pharaoh’s magicians matched them, trick for trick. At least for a while. According to the story, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers were more or less able to keep up with Moses and Aaron, but only for the prologue and the first two plagues. Here’s what the Bible says about it.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers: and they also, magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. (Exodus 7:8-12)

…Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of the Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts…. (Exodus 7:20-22a)

…And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’” So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought frogs up on the land of Egypt. (Exodus 8:5-7)

In the end, however, the power of Yahweh reigned supreme. According to the story, the Pharaoh’s magicians also tried to mimic the third plague – gnats – but could not. After that, the feats of Pharaoh’s magicians are not mentioned again (but see Exodus 9:11 for a brief mention of their suffering).

The idea that power can be determined through displays of magic also shows up in the Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-Anbiya), a collection of Islamic stories about the prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. Moses (pbuh) is a major prophet in Islam, known as “He to Whom Allah Spoke.” In fact, Moses is mentioned more times in the Qur’an than any other prophet, and I include Muhammad (pbuh) in that list. The exodus tale does exist in the Islamic literature, although there are interesting differences between the two stories. One similarity is that sorcery is used by Moses and Aaron to show the power of Allah. In fact, in the Tales of the Prophets, an official contest is waged with Moses and Aaron on one side and 70 of the Pharaoh’s best magicians on the other. Here’s the story. (Sentences in italics can be found in the Qur’an.)

Pharaoh then sent for all the magicians in his realm; and seventy thousand gathered, from whom he chose seventy. To Moses he said, “Verily we will meet thee with the like enchantments; wherefore fix an appointment between us and thee; we will not fail it, neither shalt thou, in an equal place.”

Moses answered, “Let your appointment be on the day of your solemn feast; and let the people be assembled in open day.”

 People came from all corners of Egypt; and when the magicians gathered, they asked, “Shall we certainly receive a reward, if we do get the victory?”

 Pharaoh answered, “Yea; and you shall surely be of those who approach my person.”

 Then Moses and Aaron came and saw the valley filled with crowds of people. In the middle they had placed ropes and staffs, between every two white rope. Among all the magicians were two great ones, called Razzam and Rabbab, who advanced and said, “O Moses, whether wilt thou cast down thy rod first, or shall we be the first who cast down our rods?”

 He answered, Do ye cast down your rods first.” So the magicians came forward and cast their cords and staffs and said, “By the might of Pharaoh, verily we are the victors!” And they enchanted the eyes of the people and behold, their cords and their rods appeared unto him by their enchantment, to run about like serpents.

 “The enchantment which ye have performed,” said Moses, “shall God surely render vain.” He threw his staff into the midst of the valley, and, bursting into flame, it consumed all that the magicians had enchanted. Then it became a serpent with seven heads, each of which was as large as a camel, and swallowed their cords and staffs.

 The magicians all fell down prostrate and said, “We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.” (Chapter 64, end of part I)

Clearly, it’s not the tricks themselves that are evil since they’re all performing, more or less, the same tricks. Rather, it is the source of power for those tricks that is relevant. In the Abrahamic religions, Moses and Aaron derive their power from the God of Abraham – the monotheistic Yahweh/Allah. Because of that, their feats are “miracles.” The Pharaoh’s magicians were enabled by their pantheon of gods and/or from evil. (In the eyes of the Hebrews there was no difference.) Their tricks are therefore labeled “acts of sorcery.”

In some ways, this emphasis on the source of magical power is important even today. Various Christian groups, including Focus on the Family and the Greek Orthodox Church made a point of denouncing the Harry Potter series because it highlights witchcraft. Similar views were put forth by some Muslim scholars and imams from both the Sunni and Shia traditions. When the source of power is potentially evil, it doesn’t necessarily matter if the force is ultimately used for good. If the source is evil, then it’s evil. Magicians like the one my son and I saw last weekend tend to pose less of a problem for all these groups because the source of power for these modern-day magicians is viewed as being from “sleight of hand.”

And maybe that’s the real lesson we can glean from these stories about magicians. It’s important to recognize your sources of power. Similarly, it’s important for our kids to identify their sources of power, too. We all work our magic on the world around us. Are we a force for good? Or a force for evil? And perhaps more importantly, do we gain our power from negative thinking, betrayal, and gossip? Or from God, close friends, the goddesses, our family, or the divine spark that lies within? As always, the choice is ours.

Sources

Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.

al-Kisai, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah. Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-anbiya). Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. Chicago, IL: Great Books of the Islamic World, 1997. Print.

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

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