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Review of Biblical Literature Blog

Now You See It, Now You Don't: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship between Magic and Religion
Dolansky, Shawna

Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008 pp. iv + 119. $24.50


Description: In this volume, Shawna Dolansky sets out to answer the question "How can we tell the difference between magic and religion if the end result appears to be the same?" In Western theology, "magic" traditionally has carried a negative connotation in religious contexts. But what do we do with the incidents in biblical narrative that describe the use of special powers? How do we define them? and through what lens do we see them? This excerpt from Dolansky's "introduction" provides the context for her research and conclusions. From the introduction: The problem of differentiating between actions that are magical and those that are religious is important in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Both magic and religion claim access to realms outside of ordinary reality and attempt to manipulate supernatural forces for desired outcomes in the natural world. A discussion of "magic in the Hebrew Bible" must first propose, and then arduously defend, a definition of "magic" in order to validate the subsequent categorization of acts and behaviors under scrutiny. Many critics would undermine such an effort at the very outset, denying altogether the possibility of a substantive definition of the term "magic." Here is the irony: there is no question that, if a seminar or conference is calling for papers on the subject of "magic," scholars will have a sense of what kind of research is being solicited. Intuitively, we all know what is meant by the term "magic." The problems arise when we try to classify particular behavior as either "magical" or "religious," particularly when we try to generalize such categories across space and time. This problem is only as modern as the categories themselves. . . . It can be argued that the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" itself is very much a modern scientific one that has little relevance in ancient or preindustrialized societies. In some parts of the ancient world, as in many present-day "primitive" societies, there is evidence that the practitioners of activities that we would label "magical" or "religious" made no distinction between "magic" and "religion." The authors of the Bible, for example, may not have: the fact that Aaron could turn a rod into a snake was impressive, yet Egyptian magicians managed the same feat. And the biblical author of this story seems to have no problem with this! Whether the God of Israel or the gods of Egypt were the source of the magicians' power is not relevant for the author. The fact that Moses and Aaron demonstrated their authority, at least at first, by the use of tricks with which Egyptian magicians were familiar does not diminish their status in the author's eyes and presumably would not in the eyes of the intended audience either. And yet the Deuteronomic Law Code strictly prohibits such activities in Israel, not for lack of efficacy but rather because they were abhorrent to Yahweh (Deut 18:12).

Subjects: Bible, Literature

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Review by Clare Rothschild
Published 12/26/2009
Citation: Clare Rothschild, review of Shawna Dolansky, Now You See It, Now You Don't: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship between Magic and Religion, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2009).


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