Though my thesis was written in the Bible and Ancient Semitic department at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I do not see this essay as truly a study of the Bible itself. And though, in applying to colleges, I chose schools based on the rubric of their faculty in the study of the Hebrew Bible, my main interest has never been the text itself. In my course of study at JTS, I came to realize that I gravitated most towards methods of studying the Bible that partake interdisciplinarily in the realm of literary and critical theory. My revelation helped me understand that my true interest in Bible study is not the book itself, but rather how it is read. To me, this appears to be a proper focus when one is engaged in learning Judaica, studying the books of the People of the Book. One cannot separate the books from the people who read them, and vice versa. With every (holy) text, there comes a reading community who interprets its meaning and apply it to their lives.
Thus, my interest in the relation between magic and the Hebrew Bible was really an interest in how the Bible, often seen as a metonymy for proper monotheistic religion, has been used to construct the meaning of magic, and how the projected illicit nature of magic has been utilized as the negation of religion’s virtues. Simply put, the traditional scholarly work on magic, predominantly influenced by Sir James Frazer, has seen it as intrinsically and essentially opposed to religion. In my research, I discovered that this binary was coded with various accreted associations. Magic was identified with irrationalism, emotion, manipulation and coercion, automatic results, mechanistic behavior, and ritual. Religion, on the other hand, was understood as characterized by reason, petition, requests, relying on the Divine Will, spontaneity, prayer, and sacrifice. In addition, magic, in its association with ritual behavior and with emotion, was associated with the body while religion, seen as a locus of reason, was identified with faith and spirit. This trend in thinking is in great debt to Protestant theology, picking up a trend found in Paul’s epistles, which declared that the true path to salvation with sola fide, by faith alone. The works of the Catholic Church were irrelevant and even harmful to one’s spiritual life. The anti-ritual and anti-priestly bias was read into the Bible, seeing the high, noble, and spiritual prophetic religion of the First Commonwealth devolve and degenerate into the baroque ritualism of the priests.
On one hand, many scholars have sought to characterize the religion of the priests as quasi-magical, given its emphasis on (sometimes bizarre) ritual actions. Others, often religious thinkers as well as scholars such as Yehezkel Kaufman, have sought to completely dissociate the Bible from magic, focusing on its polemical passages that condemn magical practice. I differ. In granting some credence to the view depicted above, I saw the rituals of the priests as containing a distinct magical element. However, running counter to their discrimination in favor of prophets, I saw prophetic symbolic actions as another outstanding locus of Biblical magic. However, even this approach granted succor and support to the entrenched biases described above. Still, the critical focus, the eye that seeks out the magic, remains trained on Biblical ritual, seeing it as aberrant and not properly spiritual.
The binary opposition between magic and religion still remains in strength, and focusing on the behavioral elements of the Bible alone reinforces its ingrained logocentrism. That is to say, central to the binary coding noted above, is the notion that reason, as embodied in language, which has its home in the mind, has a distinct and privileged position, over and against emotion and action, both situated in and on the body. Language, which is seen as the purest vehicle for rational thought, must be understood as absolutely different than the event. This notion is immediately and irrevocably problematized when one recognizes that speech (and writing) is an embodied act. One speaks with one’s throat, tongue, teeth, as well as one’s hands and “body language.” Austinian speech-act theory bears this fact out, when he asserts that there are some types of speech whose truth is not judged by their factual or descriptive accuracy. Rather, their value is based on their effectiveness. In fact, all speech is an act, for all speakers engage in the act of speaking, or yelling, or condemning, or exulting, or complimenting. Thus, to establish an inviolable distinction between speech and act is incorrect and misleading.
Thus, to peer only into the ritual elements of the Bible reproduces this distorted view of human experience. The Bible, along with the Ancient Near East in general, did not themselves see a substantive difference between a word and the thing to which it referred. Thus, in the Bible, we are given an account of cosmogony in which the Divine speaks the world into being. God does not describe a previously existent universe; through the utilization of language, God constitutes reality as we have it. Speech, here, is an irruption into the status quo, changing events irrevocably. Humanity is created in the image of God that is to say with God’s nature. Humans are unique amongst all creatures because of their ability to use language and thus partake in the divine creative power, one that can affect the world around them. This belief is especially borne out in the power granted to the name. By knowing or manipulating the name of a person or thing, one can have great influence upon it. The “name theology” of Deuteronomy provides for Israel an immanent hypostatic presence, an aspect of YHWH’s transcendent reality, the aspect with which one can interact.
The effective and eventful power that we discover in words in the Bible does not peter out in the modern period. Today, many philosophers understand our very reality as constituted through language. We are beings who speak, and that is how we interact with and even construct the world around us. Butler notes that we are still vulnerable to the power of the name. Words have great power to hurt us, to cheer us, and to define the way we are seen. Just as the Biblical shem is one’s public persona, the name remains the nexus with which we connect with the external world. As Tambiah writes, “There is a sense in which it is true to say that language is outside us… at the same time, language is within us, it moves us and we generate it as active agents. Since words exist and are in a sense agents in themselves which establish connexions and relations between both man and man, and man and the world, and are capable of 'acting' upon them, they are one of the most realistic representations we have of the concept of force which is either not directly observable or is a metaphysical notion which we find necessary to use."
Language, much like God’s name in Deuteronomic name theology, is for us an immanent transcendence, that which is external to us but has great impact within us. We partake of the transcendent power of language and partake of the creative and irruptive power of God’s originary speech. The words we speak have such power to them, the power to create the reality we inhabit; the words that act on us shape our persons and our world. Our speaking selves both speak and are spoken for; we name and are named in turn. Our vulnerability to the power of the word is a means by which we experience and share in transcendence, a force beyond us in the world around us. What can be a greater magic than that?