Rüdiger Schmitt, Magie im Alten Testament
(Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 313; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2004), xiii + 471 pp. Cloth. €94.00. ISBN 3-934628-52-4.
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

The last few decades have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of publications on ancient magic. It seems that one can hardly pick up a publisher’s catalog without finding advertisements for new monographs and conference volumes devoted to the subject.1 While this represents a vigorous renewed interest in the topic and healthy re-engagement with the age-old debate of whether one should distinguish magic from religion, it also makes it difficult for new works to remain up-to-date or engaged with the continually burgeoning interdisciplinary interest. Fortunately, the book under review here is a welcome exception. A slightly revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation (Universität Münster 2004), this masterful tome will doubtless become an important resource and focus of debate.2 It is comprehensive, well organized, and shows a greater methodological sophistication than many works on magic to date, especially those that focus on the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible.

At the heart of this book, and informing its conclusions, is the long debated relationship between magic and religion. Is magic something that is distinct from religion or is it an undifferentiated aspect of it? Early scholarship on ancient magic asserted a sharp dichotomy between magic and religion. This dichotomy was conceived of in various ways. For some, magic represented an earlier (often called “primitive”) evolutionary point in the history of a religion. For others magic was to be distinguished from religion in that its structure and goal was individual and not social. Still others asserted that the difference between them was one of process (magic is mechanistic and requires praxis, whereas worship requires moral rectitude) or intent (magicians coerce and manipulate, whereas worshipers supplicate).

However, as scholars have increasingly become aware, a great deal of evidence from the ancient world flies in the face of these assertions, and so increasingly contemporary scholarship has begun to emphasize important areas of overlap between magic and religion. Various scholars, whose work focuses on Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Hellenistic world, have begun to suggest that we should view both magical and religious practices as part of a continuum that encompasses both individual and communal forms of piety. For some cultures, this overlap is so extensive that scholars have urged that the term “magic” be abandoned altogether. Others, especially those whose research focuses on the religions of late antiquity, have argued that the term “magic” is best understood as the imagined or feared polemical projection of one individual or culture onto another. For them “magic” is a dirty word for other peoples’ religious practices, a label that marks “other-ness,” a stand-in for unsanctioned, foreign, or illegal forms of religious activity.3 It is into this thorny and culturally specific debate that this book enters.

Chapter One examines the sociology of knowledge concerning the study of magic by placing it within the larger context of comparative and theoretical approaches to religion and ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Studies. Here one finds a thorough but concise survey of the many theories that have influenced the study of ancient magic (e.g., those of the early modern philosophers, structuralists, evolutionists, sociologists, psychologists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion). This provides a useful context for the next section in which Schmitt surveys the study of magic by scholars of the Hebrew Bible (he divides this material into studies that appeared before World War II4 and those that appeared afterwards). This section is then followed by brief descriptions of magic as treated in Egyptology, Assyriology, and the Classics. Schmitt concludes this interdisciplinary survey by considering the methodological and hermeneutic difficulties in reconstructing ancient conceptions of magic based on textual and archaeological, as opposed to living, resources, and by listing a series of subjects that one might reasonably hope to investigate given the limitations of the evidence. These various subjects (i.e., dimensions of the study of magic) become the focus of Schmitt’s examination.

Chapter Two investigates the cosmological bases of ancient conceptions of magic and ritual practice as found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit and Syria (Phoenicia), Hatti, and Israel.5 Here Schmitt establishes and underscores the close relationship between performative practice and communication with the divine world, and how preoccupations with order and chaos inform cosmological, mythical, and ritual conceptions. His geographical and comparative approach allows him to establish a number of common conceptions shared by the peoples of the ancient Near East and leads him to formulate a functional definition of magic.

Magie ist eine ritualsymbolische Handlung, die durchgeführt in einer adäquaten Situation, durch Nutzung bestimmter göttlich enthüllter Medien (Symbol, Wort und Handlung) und kosmischen wissens, ein bestimmtes Ergebnis vermittels symbolischer Antizipation der göttlichen Intervention erzieht (pp. 92–93).

For Schmitt, magic is central to religion and communication with the divine. Its believed effectiveness depends on the practicioner’s mythological realization of the ritual, for which the ritual serves as precedent and justification.6 Ritual materials used by the practitioner serve as symbolic media for communication with the divine, and thus as tools for realizing the effectiveness of the act. With this definition in mind Schmitt proceeds to a detailed study of magic in the Hebrew Bible.

He begins in Chapter Three by turning his attention to those Hebrew words most commonly associated with magic. The terms are organized into three units: “Harmful Magic” (i.e., kāšap [passim], ‘ōrrê-yôm [Job 3:8], and šōar [Isa 47:11]); “Professional Magicians and their Fields of Activity” (i.e., [passim], [passim], ḥōber [Deut 18:11, Ps 58:6], ba’al lāšōn ‘îš lāšōn [Qoh 10:11, Ps 140:12], akam arāšîm [Isa 3:3], and [Exod 7:22]); and “Loanwords” (i.e., ‘aššāp [Dan 1:20] and arom [Exod 8:3]). Schmitt examines separately those terms that have been proposed but remain outside scholarly consensus (i.e., ‘āwen [Ps 10:7], šāw’ [Exod 20:7, Deut 5:11], and ‘ōkēr [1 Kgs 18:17]). This chapter offers a useful collation and assessment of the linguistic evidence, though here Schmitt appears to have overlooked the root hāgah “mutter” (e.g., hiphil Isa 8:19), noted for its connection to cursing and incantations already by I. Goldziher in 1896.7 One important conclusion reached at this juncture, and revisited in greater detail in Chapter Six, is that one cannot recognize a critical religious attitude toward professional magicians in the early literary prophets until Isaiah. Indeed, one does not find such an attitude present until the Deuteronomistic corpus and exilic and post-exilic prophets.

The fourth chapter is devoted to the performative character of words,8 objects, and various techniques that constitute magical praxis as defined by Schmitt. This includes detailed studies on curse terms found in the Hebrew Bible (‘rr, qll, ‘lh, qbb, z’m, and nqb) and in epigraphic materials from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Israel. He also examines the ritually charged import of eyes, hands, hair, and other human parts of the body and the use of various materials (blood, flour, hyssop, crimson, cedar wood, water, and oil) in rituals of performative power. Schmitt also studies various terracotta remains and amulets that appear to have possessed performative significance. Useful illustrations are included.

In chapter five one finds exhaustive discussions of figures in the Hebrew Bible who serve as practioners of performative rituals and symbolic acts. Naturally this includes the prophets, priests, and elders, and close examinations of a number of biblical pericopes (especially healing narratives and ritual descriptions).9 This chapter is especially useful in that it considers the social functions of these figures and the roles of editors in shaping the narratives, and because it dialogues with important works by anthropologists (e.g., Mary Douglas) and historians of religion (e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith).

Having laid the methodological and philological groundwork Schmitt devotes Chapter Six to biblical descriptions and definitions of elicit magic and the subject of polemic. Here Schmitt argues that magic played a vital role in the religious and daily lives of the ancient Israelites (at the state, official cult, local, and family levels) and that the polemics against various forms of magic are aimed only at foreign, harmful, and other forms of “unauthorized” magic.

A concluding chapter then follows in which Schmitt summarizes the history of magic as represented in the Hebrew Bible from diachronic and synchronic perspectives. The material analyzed from a diachronic perspective is divided into the following eight sections: 1) The 9th Century bce—the Time of the Great Holy Men; 2) The 8th Century bce—the Differentiation of Ritual Specialists: Magic in the Service of Prophetic Proclamation; 3) Crisis and Reform during the Later Monarchy; 4) Magic in the Deuteronomistic Literature; 5) Magic in the Priestly Literature; 6) Magic in Prophetic Literature of the Exile and Post Exilic Times; 7) Magic in Jewish Literature from the Graeco-Roman Period until Late Antiquity; and 8) Archaeological Finds of the Iron Age II B-C. The synchronic treatment contains one section: “Magic as Cosmological Praxis and Its Socio-Religious Functions.” A useful list of abbreviations, a bibliography, and indices then follow.

In many ways this is a bold work. While it may be grouped with a growing number of studies that approach “magic” as a category of ritual practice,10 its integration of the cosmological concepts that inform ritual lend it an innovative theoretical framework.11 This study thus broadens the definition of magic in a way that permits us to see magic in ancient Israel neither as a vestige of earlier “primitive” practices nor as the “negative” influences of its more dominant neighbors (though the issue of influence in general may be worth investigating further). Rather we may see it as an emic system and category of thought whose polemical use in Israel registers an ancient competition for ritual authority brought about by the increasing monopolization of the central cult.

This is an important work for those engaged in the comparative study of ancient Near Eastern magic. It is certain to provoke a useful debate among Bible scholars, theologians, and historians of religion.


[1] I admittedly include my own work here. See, Scott B. Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler, eds., Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (Magic in History Series, 8; Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).

[2] The editors of the AOAT series also should be thanked for producing this work in such a timely manner in order to ensure its immediate relevance. The speedy turn around time, however, does result in the work reading more like a dissertation than a book and in a number of typographical errors. E.g., see inter alia p. 110 where one must read menaēš for menaēś pp. 115–116 where the diacritic for the appears is missing on the words harom (3X) and lehāîm; and p. 336 where one finds a lack of spacing in the Akkadian text quoted there.

[3] The skepticism concerning whether magic is a legitimate category of thought and practice in antiquity informs the tendency to place “magic” in quotation marks—a tendency that has begun to influence biblical scholars. See, e.g., Todd Klutz, ed., Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon (JSOTSup 245; London: T. and T. Clark International, 2003). Schmitt’s research usefully moves away from this tendency.

[4] Though this work is very comprehensive, I note here in chronological order a number of important studies not cited by the author in this section: Anton Jirku, Mantik in Altisrael (Rostok: Rats- and Universitatsbuch druckerei von Adlers Erben, G.m.b.h., 1913); “Zur magischen Bedentung des Kleidung in Israel,” ZAW 17 (1917/18), 19–125; Alfred Bertholet, Kulturgeschichte Israels (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1919); Gustav Hölscher, Geschichte der israelitischen und jüdischen Religion (Giessen, Alfred Töpelmann, 1922); S. Mowinckel, Psalmstudien, V: Segen und Fluch in Israels Kult und Psalmdichtung (Kristiana: Videnskapsselskapts Skrifter II, 1924); Franz Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie (Leipzig: Verlag und Druck von B. G. Teubner, 1925); A. Lods, “Les ideés des Israélites sur les maladies, ses causes et ses remèdies,” in K. Budde, ed., Von Alten Testament, Karl Marti zum 70 Geburtstag gewidmet (Giessen: Töpelmann, 1925), 181–193; “Le rôle des idees magiques dans la mentalite isráelite,” OTE (London: C. Griffin, 1927), pp. 55–76; “magique hébraïque et magie cananéene,” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuse 7 (1927), 1–16; E. G. Kraeling, “The Real Religion of Ancient Israel,” JBL 47 (1928), 133–159; A. Le Fèvre, “La Bible et la Magie,” in L. Pirot, ed., Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplement. Vol. 5, (Paris: Librairie Letouzey, 1928-), pp. 732–739; Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, from its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile (Tel Aviv: Mosad Byalik, 1937) (in Hebrew).

[5] The discussion of the contest between Moses and the Egyptian priests (pp. 97–100) appears to be unaware of Scott B. Noegel, “Moses and Magic: Notes on the Book of Exodus,” JANES 24 (1997), 45–59.

[6] Given the author’s definition of magic, it might have been useful to integrate the following two relevant works: Jørgen Podmann Sørenson, “The Argument in Ancient Egyptian Magical Formulae,” AcOr 45 (1984), 5–19; Robert A. Yelle, “Rhetorics of Law and Ritual: A Semiotic Comparison of the Law of Talion and Sympathetic Magic,” JAAR 69 (2001), 627–647.

[7] I. Goldziher, Abhandlungen zur arabischen Philologie vol. I (Leiden, 1896), p. 42.

[8] In the discussion on the performative power of words (pp. 124–128), readers should be aware of the following important works not mentioned by Schmitt: I. Rabinowitz, A Witness Forever: Ancient Israel’s Perception of Literature and the Resultant Hebrew Bible (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993); Sheldon W. Greaves, The Power of the Word in the Ancient Near East (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation; University of California, Berkeley, 1996); Sanders, Seth, “Performative Utterances and Divine Language in Ugaritic,” JANES 63 (2004), 161–181. The latter article appeared after the book under review was in press.

[9] Schmitt’s discussion of Jacob’s manipulation of Labans flocks (pp. 302–305) treats this narrative as describing a ritual of performative power. However, the process is well known to those experienced in animal husbandry. See Scott B. Noegel, “Sex, Sticks, and the Trickster in Gen. 30:31–43: A New Look at an Old Crux,” JANES 25 (1997), 7–17.

[10] See most importantly Einar Thomassen, “Is Magic a Subclass of Ritual?,” in David R. Jordan, Hugo Montgomery, and Einar Thomassen, eds., The World of Magic: Papers from the First International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 4–8 May 1997 (Norwegian Institute at Athens: Bergen, 1999), pp. 55–66.

[11] Bolstering the author’s treatment of the cosmological underpinnings of ancient Near Eastern and Israelite religion are the following studies. Francesca Rochberg, “Heaven and Earth: Divine-Human Relations in Mesopotamian Celestial Divination,” in Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pp. 169–185; Mark S. Smith, “Astral Religion and the Representation of Divinity: The Cases of Ugarit and Judah,” in Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pp. 187–206.