OCCULT LORE IN SCRIPTURE
Occultism in its most ominous forms (necromancy, sorcery, demon worship, and the evil eye) was condemned in the Bible, but other milder expressions were not. It may come as a surprise to some that the occult practices of astrology, divination, and numerology were, in fact, highly commended in Scripture.
The serious investigation of the mystical influences of the heavenly bodies on human lives and affairs held an important place in primitive thought. Accepting this ancient superstition as valid, the Bible affirmed a divine two-fold purpose for stars: they were useful to mankind “for signs and for seasons” (Gen. 1:14). The night sky was seen as a blackboard upon which God wrote esoteric messages by means of astral diagrams. As “signs” they provided divine admonitions about the fortunes of persons and of nations. An alignment of planets revealed something about events happening on earth, and the appearance of an eclipse or a comet (God’s fiery sword) was a warning to desist from current activities. Also a falling star said that an important person was about to die. The other use of stars, that is for determining “seasons,” meant that the farmer’s almanac was set by the equinoxes and the solstices, as well as the phases of the moon. The calendars of man were based on the heavens, and this was taken as very useful communication from God by means of His luminaries.
In one view, the stars were conceived as “lamps” hanging from the cosmic canopy. But there was also an ancient animistic belief that the lights of heaven were living beings - either gods or angels. The Bible’s term “heavenly host” reveals the concept that the stars were living creatures, an army of warrior-spirits called angels (Job 15:15, 25:5, 38:7). That they could aid in the defeat of an enemy of Israel was presented as a demonstrated fact:
From heaven fought the stars; from their courses they fought against Sisera. Jud. 5:20
The religious traditions of the Hebrews provided for a special cere-mony at the time of the full moon. And this was obviously adopted from
an earlier period when the object of worship was not Yahweh, but the moon itself (Num. 10:10, 28:11, 1 Sam. 20:5,18,19,24, Ps. 81:3). Also, reversal of the sun’s motion was taken as a possibility, granting that the sun was one of the free-moving heavenly hosts or planets (Gk. planetes: “wanderer”) (2 Ki. 20:11, Ps. 19:4-5).
The study of astrology remained a legitimate science throughout Bible times and thereafter, witness the fact that even the robe of the Jewish high priest was covered with astral symbols like that of a medieval wizard.
For upon his long robe the whole cosmos was depicted, and the glories of the fathers were engraved on the four rows of stones, and Thy majesty on the diadem upon his head.
However, since Babylonian astrology involved idolatrous worship of the luminaries, this branch of the ancient art was specifically condemned by later, more enlightened, prophets.
Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries with which you have labored from your youth. Perhaps you may be able to succeed; perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels. Let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moon predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them. They cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.
Thus says Yahweh, “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. Jer. 10:2-3a
For the king of Babylon stands at the fork of the highway, at the crossroads, to use divination. He shakes the arrows, he consults the terraphim, and he looks at the liver. Into his right hand comes the lot for Jerusalem. Ezek. 21:21-22a
It must be noted that the Eastern Magi (Persian astologer-priests) enjoyed a good reputation even into New Testament times. Their coming to the Nativity of Christ was a significant event in the inauguration of the new Faith. Thus astology was used to authenticate the birth of Jesus, since
His astrological sign, Pisces, foretold His coming as the king of the Jews.
As a consequence of this scriptural sanction, astology was accepted as a respected science in the synagogues and churches until recent times. This is evidenced by astrological themes in the mosaic floors, murals, and sculptures of Jewish and Christian worship centers.
The great astronomers of medieval times were also astrologers, who made their livings by casting horoscopes at the courts of Christian kings. Also, medieval cosmology made the planetary spheres the abodes of various types of angels and departed souls. The Zodiac was Christianized, and systems of matching its twelve signs with the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples, and the twelve great Ages of history were typical of those times. Only with the coming of a more scientific era has the Church recognized the fallacy of promoting this superstition, and thus astology has now been downgraded and classed among those occult practices that should be avoided.
As with astrology, there is some ambiguity in the Bible regarding divination. Spiritism, divination, and interpretation of dreams were common in the Old Testament. Joseph was an analyzer of dreams (Gen. 37:5-10, 40:8, 41:15) and a reader of fortunes by means of a special silver goblet (Gen. 44:5,15). Balaam’s divination (Num. 22:7) and ability to place a curse on Israel was taken seriously and was only prevented by God’s direct intervention (22:12). Also the Bible acknowledges that King Ahaz used a bronze altar “to inquire by” (2 Ki. 16:15).
A common form of inquiry into God’s will was through casting lots (Josh. 18:10, 1 Sam. 10:21, Prov. 16:33, Jonah 1:7). A similar practice was the consultation of Urim and Thummim (“Lights” and “Perfections”), two clear stones carried in the breast pouch of the high priest. These holy dice could be drawn forth at random to determine the command of Yahweh or His answer to consultation on a matter of state importance (Ex. 28:30, Num. 27:21, Deut. 33:8, 1 Sam. 14:41-42, 28:6, Ezra 2:63, Neh. 7:65).
Predicting the future by random-selection methods was evidently allowable, but divination by means of necromancy and sorcery, as when King Saul had the witch call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, was not permitted by Moses (Ex. 22:18, Deut. 18:10-11). Likewise, Isaiah decried
the foolish practice of consulting the dead on behalf of the living (8:19). Ezekiel also called down woe on the women who used magic bracelets (13:18). And the iniquities of wicked King Manasseh in this regard were highly censured (2 Ki. 21:1-9, 2 Chron. 33:1-9). For this reason, the good King Josiah took upon himself the righteous work of destroying many centers of pagan sorcery (2 Ki. 23:5-25).
Divination by casting lots continued into New Testament times, the last instance of their use being the selection of a disciple to replace Judas among “the Twelve” (Acts 1:26). After Pentecost, however, the use of lots was no longer necessary, since all decisions could be made under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Still, despite this fact, the practice of selection to office by lots was perpetuated by the Church. This is evidenced by the fact that the Greek word for “clergy,” kleroi, comes from kleros, “lot” (one upon whom the lot has fallen.) Also, to this day the practice of casting lots is continued by Bible literalists such as the Mennonites, whose deacons are selected in this manner.
The superstitious veneration of numbers is especially apparent in the religious usage of the divine number seven (7-day week, 7-branched lampstand, 7-year multiples to make a Jubilee period). The number forty was especially prevalent in Scripture as well (Gen. 7:12, Ex. 16:35, 24:18, Num. 13:25, 14:33, Jud. 3:11, 5:31, 8:28, 13:1, 1 Sam. 4:18, 17:16, 1 Ki. 19:8, Ezek. 29:11). It is generally understood nowadays that an interval of forty days or forty years in the Bible was not intended to be taken literally, but was only broadly representative of a long indefinite period of time. (For the people living in a pre-scientific age, numbers were not precise; they were pictorial.) It is beyond belief to accept literally the Bible’s chronology when it assigns to so many rulers a reign of exactly forty years - as with Othniel (Jud. 3:11), Deborah (Jud. 5:31), Gideon (Jud. 8:28), Eli (1 Sam. 4:18), Saul (1 Sam. 13:1, Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam. 5:4), and Solomon (1 Ki. 11:42).
The system of numerology, while not to be used in magic or witchcraft, was not forbidden in the Bible. In fact, numerology using the Hebrew alphabet (called “gematria”) is an essential tool for interpreting Scripture among fundamentalist Jews. And as every Christian Bible student knows, numbers account for much of the symbolism of the Book of
Revelation. Mystical ciphers were used not because of their obscurity but actually because their meanings were so well known among the Jews of ancient times. Thus, a system that grew out of the practice of magic was converted into a symbolic code in the Bible
The Bible does not provide a clear word with regard to the acceptability of many occult practices. It allowed for the possibility that astrology, divination, and numerology might be used either for good or for evil. As for evil occultism, practitioners and institutions of black magic were actively confronted. This was the case when the Gnostic wonder-worker Simon Magus was condemned by Peter (Acts 8:9). And in a similar case, the fortune-telling slave girl of Philippi was exorcised and stripped of her occult powers by Paul (Acts 16:16). Also, in a great upwelling of religious zeal, a large quantity of books of magic were burned by the people of Ephesus (Acts 19:19).
But magic, per se, was not condemned wholesale in the Bible as it should have been. And it is to be regretted that several instances of perverted worship and superstition are to be found in its pages. However, at least on the question of accuracy and integrity, the Bible must be commended for giving such a clear picture of ancient times and such an honest description of the faults of the original followers of the Faith. As has been shown, the Bible did not deny the powers of magic. It simply warned against the practice of occultism as something too dangerous to be tampered with.
Regrettably, the record of religion since Bible times has not been without the taint of silly superstitions. After the establishment of Christianity, the Church continued to be plagued by the inroads of pagan magic. Origen, Augustine, and others of the early Fathers were convinced that magicians were as powerful as they claimed to be and that their potency was achieved by being in league with the Devil or with pagan gods. On the fringes of religion, Gnostics resorted to necromancy, and Jewish Cabalists claimed occult powers through the knowledge of arcane alphabetic formulas. Also, secret societies such as the Rosicrucians, Knights Templars, and Freemasons were formed to allow clandestine participation in forbidden magical rites.
In England an act of 1542 made witchcraft, sorcery, and enchantment punishable by death. And under this cloud of delusion Protestants and Catholics alike subjected accused witches to burning, drowning, or hanging. As late as 1768 John Wesley maintained that to suffer a witch to live was to surrender belief in the Bible.
An entirely different atmosphere prevails today. This is a time of toleration of all beliefs, however outlandish. Many pseudoscientific cults are now openly connected with spiritualism, witchcraft, and supposed powers of the mind. (Sigmund Freud forseeing the misuse of psychology, once confided to Carl Jung that he made his sexual theories into dogma as a bulwark against a possible “outburst of the black flood of occultism.”)
There is a constant danger that psychic research and studies in parapsychology will lead to hasty conclusions in the realm of metaphysics. Avowed spiritualists, championed by mainline ecclesiastics, have brought about a resurgence of interest in necromancy - what was formerly classed as black magic and sorcery. And the effect of these latest superstitions upon orthodox religion, if taken seriously, could be quite significant.
Amazingly, some people, even in this enlightened age, are indeed taking these things seriously. Superstition maintains its tenacious hold on the gullible, impressionable mass of men in many ways. After all, what is the difference between the current interest in horoscopes and the ancient veneration of planets as influential powers? Even a petty superstition such as knocking on wood for luck is nothing but a vestige from the times when man’s ancestors worshiped trees. The fear of a black cat is nothing less than modern-day animism - the fear of a witch’s familiar or a nocturnal demon in feline form. Also, in the terror of cemeteries there can be perceived a carry-over from the old belief in ghosts, and veneration of relics presumes some kind of animation of a dead corpse by a living spirit. Furthermore, it is obvious that consecrated medallions or good luck charms are merely fetishes under different names.
This is truly a lamentable state of affairs, since the shortcomings of the Bible have been matched by a flood of current superstition in the cultic groups and esoteric brotherhoods that pervade modern society. In such an environment, reminiscent of the Dark Ages, it is imperative that the perceptive adherent of theism must strive to walk in the sunlight of pure religion. Nowadays any real power behind primitive rituals and taboos should be discounted as mere rubbish, for anything less than this rational conclusion is a step backward into prehistoric ingnorance.