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Condemning the Occult
There is today a growing interest in occult beliefs and practices, such as fortune-telling, witchcraft, and astrology. But John reveals the true nature of the occult when he writes that the sorcery of Babylon has deceived all the nations (Rev. 18:23).
Occult practices were common among the pagan nations of the ancient world. But attempts to contact or control evil spirits were expressly forbidden to the Hebrews, and the prohibition extends to believers today. Among the practices that Deuteronomy 18:10-12 calls "an abomination to the Lord" are:
child sacrifice (making one's son or daughter "pass through the fire");
soothsaying, a form of divination which may have been similar to tea leaf reading or astrology;
• conjuring spells;
• spiritism; and
• calling up the dead.
In the New Testament, the gospel exposed two sorcerers, Simon (Acts 8:9-25) and Elymas (13:6-8). They may have been something like the "itinerant Jewish exorcists," also mentioned in the Book of Acts (19:13), who attempted to drive evil spirits out of people in the name of Jesus.
The New Testament word translated "sorcery" comes from the same Greek word as our English word "pharmacy." Obviously this has to do with drugs; a more relevant and contemporary application could hardly be found. The denunciations of Revelation 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; and 22:15 apply to those who use drugs to bring on trances during which they claim to have supernatural knowledge or power.
From time to time, newspapers carry stories of drought-ravaged farmers who hire professional rainmakers and "water witchers." Some of these "experts" use divining rods, others try rain dances. Their occultic efforts are often portrayed as a noble, last-ditch effort to try to save the crops when all else has failed.
There were apparently droughts in Judah after the exile (Zech. 10:1), and some of the people were turning to diviners and false gods for help rather than the Lord (Zech. 10:2). This was utterly foolish in light of the fact that Judah's exile had been a judgment for exactly these kinds of practices (compare Jer. 14:1-10).
The Lord condemns all forms of divining, fortune-telling, and sorcery. Practices such as rain dances, consulting the stars, seances, casting charms and spells, and the use of items such as divining rods, tarot cards, Ouija boards, and crystals are far from innocent. These arts and objects engage demons that are in opposition to the one true God. Their leader is a liar (John 8:44), and his strategy is to deceive people (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
The way of true wisdom is to be found in a relationship with God, not through dabbling in the occult.
When modern-day weather forecasters miss a forecast, and it rains rather than shines, or snows a blizzard rather than turning out clear and cold, the public outcry is often severe, especially if property or lives have been placed at risk as a result of the inaccurate information.
Imagine, though, if the forecasters knowingly broadcast lies about the weather! That's what God charged the false prophets of Judah with doing (Jer. 14:14), only their forecasts were not about the weather, but about political and spiritual matters. Rather than listening for a word from the Lord, these charlatans resorted to divination, attempting to tell the future through such means as astrology or examining the entrails of ritually slaughtered animals.
Scripture strongly denounced this practice, along with other forms of the occult arts.
Many cultures in the ancient world had occult practices, but the Babylonians distinguished themselves by institutionalizing the magical arts as part of their government (Dan. 2:2). They were particularly known for their extensive use of astrology. This is among the reasons why God severely condemned Babylon. Scripture
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repeatedly warns God's people against the "abominations" of the occult.
The Abominations of the Canaanites
Recent years have seen an increase in occult practices and Satanic rituals. But these things are nothing new. Somewhat similar rites were taking place in Canaan at the time when Israel left Egypt. God referred to the Canaanite practices as "abominations" for which "the land vomits out its inhabitants" (Lev. 18:25-26).
The historical context of Leviticus 18 shows that God's concern had to do with religious as well as sexual purity. The chapter opens and closes with warnings to avoid the ways of the Canaanites (Lev. 18:3, 30).
The practices mentioned—incest, adultery, fornication, intercourse during a woman's menstrual flow, child sacrifice, sodomy, bestiality—were all acts committed as part of the Canaanite religion. That religion was essentially a fertility cult. Worshipers appealed to their gods to help their women reproduce and to make their lands fertile. Thus sexual intercourse played a major role in the worship.
There were other "abominations" involved, such as idolatry and the use of mediums and witchcraft. For all of these things, the Lord promised to drive the Canaanites out of the land. In their place He planned to install His people living according to His ways and worshiping according to His holy practices.
The Seduction of Spirits
It is often said that "curiosity killed the cat." One curiosity not worth risking one's life over is the mystery of magic and the spirit world. God's Law spoke very clearly about the attraction of divination, witchcraft, mediums, oracles, and soothsayers: it called them "abominations" (Deut. 18:9-12).
Magic was practiced by every one of the cultures surrounding Israel. Scripture specifically names the Egyptians (Ex. 7:11), the Assyrians (Nah. 3:4), the Babylonians (Dan. 2:2), and the Canaanites (Deut. 18:14) as resorting to magical arts, and usually condemns the practice when it mentions it.
Yet there is no denying the strong seduction of magic and the occult. A longing for power or significance can create tremendous interest in the real or apparent use of supernatural forces working on one's behalf.
Perhaps that's why Israel often succumbed to the seduction of magic later in its history. Despite the strong warnings of Deuteronomy and other passages, the nation and its leaders turned to sorcerers and other spiritists during several times of crisis (2 Kin. 17:17; 2 Chr. 33:6; Mic. 5:12).
God does not resort to magic and other occult arts to make His will known or to exercise His power. His people have no need to resort to any sort of magic, witchcraft, astrology, horoscopes, Ouija boards, tarot cards, mediums, seances, divining rods, fortune-tellers, "spiritual advisors," crystals, potions, drugs, or any element of the occult.
If we want to engage in true spirituality, we can find it clearly presented through the Scriptures and, ultimately, in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God among us. "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). We should be aware of spiritual evil but not be seduced by it, lest we be like moths drawn to a flame that kills.
For more on this topic, see ADVICE, "Bad Advice," page 9; ASTRONOMY, "The Failure of the Stars," page 26.
Thomas Nelson Publishers. What Does the Bible Say About- : The Ultimate A to Z Resource Fully Illustrated. Nelson's A to Z series. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
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