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Imitative Magic in the Old Testament

Solomon Nigosian
A practice based on the assumption that certain actions performed between a person and some material
object will produce certain desired effects is known as imitative magic (also referred as sympathetic or
mimetic). There are numerous interesting instances of imitative magic connected with the prophet Elisha.
It is recounted that a man once dropped his iron axe head into the water, whereupon Elisha cut a piece of
stick and threw it into the water at the spot the axe head fell. Just as a piece of wood would float, so the
iron axe head floated on the surface of the water (2 Kings 6:5-7). Another striking narrative of imitative
magic is recounted in 2 Kings 2:19-22. Here it is related how the people of a certain city complained to
Elisha about the bad water; Elisha having asked for a new bowl with some salt in it, went to the source of
the water and threw the salt in the water, uttering the following incantation: “I have cured this water,
henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”
The idea here is of course parallel to that of the wood and iron: because the wood floats the iron will
imitate it; because salt is curative it will cure the bad water. One is reminded of the bitter water restored
by Moses; he threw a piece of wood into the water and it immediately became drinkable (Exod. 15:25).
Similarly, Elisha’s followers were one day brewing a pottage from the herbs gathered by one of the
disciples. Among the herbs gathered there happened to be some poisonous gourds, and this became
apparent when the band of prophets began to partake of the pottage. Elisha immediately called for some
meal and cast it into the pot and the effect of the meal was to make the poison innocuous (2 Kings 4:38-
41). Thus, just as the meal was harmless, so too, the poisonous herb became harmless. One wonders if a
magical formula of some sort was not uttered by Elisha, just as in the former case.
Another piece of imitative magic is described in 2 Kings 13:14-19. The prophet Elisha told King Josiah of
Israel in Samaria to take a bow and arrows; next he placed his hands upon the king’s hand (which
constituted a magical act) and bid him open the window eastward (i.e. in the direction of Syria—the foe),
and told the king to shoot an arrow while he uttered the following incantation: “A victory arrow from
YHWH! A victory arrow against Aram! And you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek, until you have
wiped them!” This was the first part of the ritual; next came the imitative magical act. The prophet
ordered the king to smite the ground with the arrows; he did so three times. Elisha rebuked the king for
doing so only three times; he ought to have done it five or six times; for each time that the king struck the
ground would bring one victory over Syria (2 Kings 13:14-19).
There are several other incidents that indicate Elisha’s magical powers. The wife of one of the prophets,
who was a widow, found herself in some kind of financial difficulty. Having sought Elisha’s assistance,
she was told to borrow as many vessels as she could, and use the oil in her possession to fill up the
vessels. Because one vessel contained oil, so would all the other vessels (2 Kings 4:1-7).
Another type of imitative magic is shown when Elisha is represented as being able to raise the dead by
means of a somewhat elaborate ritual. He lay himself upon the dead body of a Shunammite boy and put
his mouth upon the boy’s mouth, his eyes upon the boy’s eyes, and his hands upon the boy’s hands. Just
as Elisha, the living, was alive, so the dead body of the boy became alive (2 Kings 4:32-35). A similar
story is told of Elijah, though with less detail (1 Kings 17:21-22).
In the eyes of many Israelites, Elisha must have been regarded as a magician-prophet; not only did he
perform many wonders during his lifetime, but even after his death, contact with his bones brought life to
a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-21).
There are a number of other instances of imitative magic being employed for the purpose of victory in
war. Moses enabled his people to conquer the Amalekites by keeping his hands raised, or, according to
another version, by keeping his rod stretched out during the entire battle (Exod. 7:8-13). At the urging of
his Judean ally Jehoshaphat, King Ahab of Israel consulted the four hundred prophets of Samaria about
the chances of the proposed expedition against the Aramaens at Ramoth-gilead (1 Kings 22:1-28; cf. 2
Chron. 18:1-27). These four hundred prophets, who had gathered outside the city on a threshing floor, at
first acted as one group chanting an incantation of victory (1 Kings 22:10). Then, as the ecstatic activity
of the group intensified, Zedekiah stood out from his companions, and producing a pair of iron horns
(symbol of great power; cf. Deut. 33:17), uttered the following incantation: “With these you shall trust the
Arameans until they are destroyed!” (1 Kings 22:11). In the meantime the rest of the prophets kept
repeating the ecstatic refrain: “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and prosper! YHWH will give it into the hand of
the king!” (1 Kings 22:12). Thus, the prophet ensured the success of his sovereign’s mission.
Imitative magical acts performed by priests and seers were also employed for the banishing of evils and
misfortunes such as sickness, sin and uncleanness. One of the methods used was to transfer the evil to an
animal, which was then either driven out or put to death. For the expiation of a person’s guilt or iniquities,
an animal was selected, and after the guilty person had laid both hands on the animal’s head, a
confessional incantation was uttered in order to transmit his guilt to the animal (Lev. 1:2-9; 3:1-17;
Num.8:12). Then, the animal was either sent away into the wilderness (Lev. 16:21), or killed and
sacrificed (Lev. 4:15). Similarly, the elaborate magical ritual required for the cure of leprosy entailed the
killing of one bird, and the dipping of a second live bird, along with some other materials, into the blood
of the first bird (Lev. 14:4-7). Thus, the disease passed from the leper to the living bird, which was then
let to fly away.
In another ritual, blood was sprinkled (Lev. 14:7) in order to restore to the person vitality, or virtue, which
was affected by the evil. Similarly, the same magical procedure was performed for the cleansing of of an
unclean or contaminated house, affected by disease.
The act of imitative magic was also used to avert vengeance—presumably by the spirits—for an unknown
murderer’s crime (Deut. 21:1-9). In this case, a heifer was selected and led down to a valley which had
running water, and there it’s neck was broken. Whether the purpose was to appease the spirit of the
murdered person, or to transfer the unknown guilt of the murderer to the animal, or both, the killing of the
animal represents an imitative magical act.
Somewhat different, yet a symbol of imitative magic, was the bronze serpent on the pole, made by Moses.
It had the effect of curing people who were bitten by a serpent (Num. 21:8-9). This brazen serpent was
used for centuries as a magical instrument until the reign of King Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.) whose reforms
included, among other destructive acts, the shattering of the brazen serpent (2 Kings 18:4).
Naturally, the early prophets were not the only experts in imitative magic. Some of the latter prophets too
performed the practices of mimetic magic.
The activity of the sensitive and passionate prophet Jeremiah was directed against two major
contemporary concerns: the imminent invasion of the enemy from the north, and the prevailing religious
corruption of Judah. In regard to the latter problem, Jeremiah performed a mimetic act with a linen
waistcloth which demonstrated the present corruption of his people (Jer. 13:1-11). He wore the linen
waistcloth for some time, and then hid it in the cleft of a rock. After an interval he went and brought it
back—and behold, “the waistcloth was spoiled and good for nothing.” In the same way, the Israelites who
used to belong to YHWH were now following after other gods and their cultic rites, and therefore were
like the waistcloth: “good for nothing.”
Another imitative performance was Jeremiah’s purchase of a potter’s earthen flask (Jer. 19:1-13). He
went to the valley of Ben-hinnom (a place where human sacrifices were made), taking with him some of
the senior priests and elders of the people. There in the presence of all he broke the flask and uttered the
incantation: “So will I break this people and this city! Just as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot
be repaired again” (Jer. 19:11).
To demonstrate dramatically the coming siege of Jerusalem, its terrible economic condition during the
siege, and its hideous final fate, the prophet Ezekiel performed an elaborate three-part mimetic act (Ezek.
4:1-5:12). First, he took a brick and upon it portrayed the city of Jerusalem with a siege wall around it, a
mound, camps, and battering rams. Then, he took an iron plate and placed it between him and the brick.
Turing his face towards the brick, he moved the iron plate gradually towards the brick as a sign of Israel’s
next siege (Ezek. 4:1-3).
Next, he prepared a barley cake from a mixture of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt baked in
cow’s dung. This was to be his meal for an assigned number of days to indicate that the Israelites were to
“eat their bread unclean among the nations” during the siege (Ezek. 4:9-17). With bare arms and cords
tied around him, he lay down on his side upon the brick in the sight of all the people. Symbolizing the
number of years of punishment, he remained on the brick first for “three hundred and ninety days” on his
left side, and then for “forty days” on his right side, daily eating his prepared barley cake (Ezek. 4:4-8).
Finally, he performed another mimetic ordeal to indicate YHWH’s judgement over Jerusalem. He took a
sharp sword and cut some hair from his head and beard. Then he weighed the hair on a balance and
divided it into three equal parts. One portion he burned in the midst of the miniature city on the brick; the
second part he stoked with sword over the city, while the third part he scattered to the wind. Thus one
third of the Israelites were to “die of pestilence and be consumed with famine” in the besieged city;
another part was to “fall by the sword,” while the third part was to be “scattered to all the winds” (Ezek.
Taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, 1978, pp. 41-46