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Reviewed by:
  • Magic and Divination in the Old Testament
  • Ann Jeffers
Solomon Nigosian. Magic and Divination in the Old Testament. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008. Pp. xii + 149.

While the topic of magic and divination has long been neglected by biblical scholarship, there has been a spate of publications on magic and divination in the ancient world in recent years. Among these, L. Ciraolo and J. Seidel, eds., Magic and Divination in the Ancient World (2002); T. Klutz, ed., Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon (2004); and G. Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2008) are fine examples of the genre. Solomon Nigosian, a Research Associate at Victoria College, University of Toronto, and a founder and minister of the Armenian Evangelical church, whose most recent publications include Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices (2004); World Religions: A Historical Approach (2000); and “Images of Moses: A Comparative Inquiry” (Theological Review, 2002) contributes to this growing interest though the publication of his new volume.

This short book’s explicit task is to focus on “a particular aspect of ancient Israelite religion, namely the occult functionaries and their activities as presented in the Old Testament records” (p.vii). The bulk of the book is organized along the lines of “Magical Activities” (chapter 2), “Divinatory [End Page 242] Techniques” (chapter 3, although hepastocopy, hydromancy, and astrology are missing), practitioners (“Magicians, Seers and Diviners,” chapter 4), as well as a preliminary chapter (“The Biblical View: A Survey”) and a concluding chapter (“An Assessment,” chapter 5). While Nigosian is undoubtedly right in asserting that magical and divinatory practices are widespread in biblical material and that these same practices closely mirror those of ancient Near Eastern neighboring countries, there are a number of issues not included in this book that have been recently tackled by other scholars. Despite the affirmation that there have been “paradigm shifts” (p. 2) in the field of early Israelite religion, this reviewer would maintain that the biggest paradigm shift concerns the way in which scholars have looked at magic and divination.

Firstly, these categories used to be understood within the worldview of the modern Western world, instead of being understood in their own context. As a result, magic and, to some extent, divination have been synonymous with ignorance, subversion, evil, and malice. This should not be uncritically sustained, and therefore one should be careful in the use of terminology (see the author’s use of “occult,” for instance). It has thus become clear that we cannot define magic simply by reference to the cognitive subsystem of our own culture. We should set ancient texts and practices in their own linguistic context and cultural setting, and remain aware of the symbolic production of such a world and of the religious bias of our own interpretative process. The ancient worldview needs to be considered, as well as its connections with the state, family life, and the economy. In anthropological usage, such understanding calls for an “emic” perspective, that is, an analysis based on the local actors’ concepts and symbols. An example of where this approach should be used can be found in the section devoted to “divinatory sites” in chapter three: mountains, trees, and springs, as parts of God’s created and interconnected universe, should be seen in the context of ancient Israelite cosmology.

Secondly, the debate between magic and religion is a false dichotomy that we should ignore in order to understand the complexity of ancient Israel’s system of beliefs and practice. Magic and religion belong to the same belief system: both draw on a specific conceptualization of the universe which views “magical” and “religious” practices as part of a continuum. Religion and magic are part of a wider system of intermediation and interconnection between the world of nature, human, animal, vegetal, and mineral. Hence, we also need to reevaluate the assumed and very Western distinction used by the author between “supernatural” and “natural.” In the ancient Near East, magic and religion were part and parcel of the cosmic order of the world.

Thirdly, another shift has taken place in the field of gender studies. Women [End Page 243] played an important role...


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