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Deuteronomy 18 Witchcraft: What It Is and Isn’t

God does not ban all fictitious magic, but in Deut. 18 and other Scriptures he does condemn actual pagan idolatry.
| Oct 31, 2014 | 14 comments

Does Deuteronomy 18 condemn anything labeled “magic”?1

If we love fantastical stories, should we be concerned about their magic? Should parents worry that fictitious magic is a “gateway drug” introducing children to real paganism?

Scripture commands believers not to commit specific sins of sorcery and witchcraft. But if we ignore the actual definitions and intentions of those sins and instead go off to condemn anything that carries the same label, we have wandered into blindness. We have replaced actual biblical discernment with manmade traditions. We’ve accepted the notion that if a command for Christians is good, then a command around the command must be better.

Unfortunately many Christian media-discernment materials — including many that claim to help parents understand fantastical stories — commit this very error of blindness.2

deuteronomy 18 witchcraft

Christian parents often assume witches like Elsa from Frozen and wizards like Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars are okay, but this magician is still Undesirable No. 1.

For example, MovieGuide founder Dr. Ted Baehr writes:

God wants us to avoid completely witchcraft and sorcery. […] You must protect your children and grandchildren, therefore, from the occult evils promoted by the Harry Potter books and movies.3

“Wretched Radio” host Todd Friel also condemned the Harry Potter series for this reason:

It’s a sin. Deuteronomy 18. God hates that stuff. I’m not going to ingest that stuff, nor am I going to let my kids [ingest it].”4

This isn’t just about Harry Potter. Christians often fail to realize that “magic” in stories can take many forms. They will open their doors to “the Force” of Star Wars or “pixie dust” of classic Disney fairy tales, but lock all their deadbolts against stories that overtly boast of magical content. You can call the story’s magic “science,” “superpowers,” “the Force,” “alien abilities,” or even magic/miracles that an alternate-world Godlike figure (such as Aslan in Narnia) gives to his followers for his purposes. But it’s still indistinguishable from magic.

Space doesn’t permit a full exploration of fictional magic. But many Christian materials give even less attention to the definition(s) of real occult practices the Bible condemns. For example, The Culture-Wise Family, edited by Ted Baehr, never tries to explore what magic God forbids or the reasons he forbids it. This is a gross oversight. It not only makes many Christians miss fantastical stories in their cultures, but promotes blind legalism.

Deuteronomy 18: Winners don’t do divination

Deut. 18 is the first biblical chapter that concerned Christians cite to defend the belief that Christians must avoid anything that seems to resemble ungodly “magic” or paganism. But what “magic” does Deut. 18 actually address?5

Goober, Barney and Floyd shouldn’t have messed with that stuff.

Goober, Barney and Floyd shouldn’t have messed with that stuff.

Most Christians who cite the text about magic are thinking of verses 9–12:

“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”

Deut. 18:9–12

God strongly condemns pagan practices of human sacrifices, then turns to other practices: divination, fortune-telling, omen-interpretation, charming, and necromancy (attempting to speak to the dead). Israel’s neighbors practiced these for anti-God reasons: they wanted to manipulate their own lives, to assure their personal and agricultural fertility. God declares that these things are an abomination in his sight. For his people he sets up another way to assure their salvation and safety: the final Prophet (vv. 15–18), the promise of Jesus Christ.

So in Deut. 18, God really condemns one sort of sin: idolatrous divination, for the purpose of self-protection and manipulation of your environment.

deuteronomy 18 witchcraft

Most Christian parents haven’t seemed to catch on that Elsa from Frozen is actually a witch.

Here God does not address the issue of anything else labeled “magic.” He does not address the questions of whether these pagan strategies actually work or whether they summon Satanic or demonic power. Here he is utterly uninterested in these topics. He only gives one motive for people: their holiness for his sake. “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God … the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this” (vv. 13–14).

New Testament truth: Don’t reject the final Prophet

Deuteronomy 18 witchcraft

Peter’s conflict with Simon Magus, 1620 painting by Avanzino Nucci. Peter is in the center, Simon at top right (in black).

The Old Testament seems to offer few other mentions of idolatry-based magic practice.6

The New Testament shows how people still reject Deut. 18’s final Prophet, Jesus Christ, in favor of idolatry. And the NT first mentions some kind of magic — whether street-huckster magic or divination — in the account of Simon (Acts. 8:9–24). When the newly converted(?) magician tries to purchase actual power from the Holy Spirit from the apostles, the apostle Peter strongly rebukes Simon. But Peter places the blame right where it belongs: Simon’s own wickedness and “the intent of [his] heart” (v. 22). In the New Testament as in the Old, bitter and iniquitous people (v. 23) are still tempted toward such idolatrous “magic.”

Two more New Testament texts specifically condemn the sin of sorcery: Gal. 5:19-20 and Rev. 21:8. Each may allude to a broad array of pagan practices, but all based in one sin: to divine the future and manipulate the world, ignoring the final Prophet Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: God hates particular magic for particular reasons

In all these Scriptures we see clear characteristics of the kind of magic that God does hate:

  1. God condemns divination. Therefore God’s people must trust him alone and reject idolatrous and unbiblical attempts to discern the future and control your own fate.
  2. God condemns false prophets and their “magic.” Therefore God’s people must reject ideas, things, or people who endorse idolatry and draw attention to themselves.
  3. God condemns sorcery. Therefore God’s people must reject any other sorcerous method people use in an attempt to divine the divine will for idolatrous ends.

In each case the Bible condemns idolatry that leads to personal magic practice. The sin begins in the person’s heart with a desire to worship something other than God. The sin continues when the person seeks some other means for divining the will of God, the will of other gods, or “fate,” instead of trusting God and believing in his word. That’s sinful magic.

Don’t misunderstand. People are wickedly creative and can use anything to sin: fictitious magic, the English language, even the names of God and Scripture truths. Nothing is good just because it exists or because a Christian enjoys it. Rather, God commands us to receive his good gifts with intentional thanksgiving because they’re made holy for us by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4). But if you are a Christian who intentionally fights sin and has less desire to “divine” the future for idolatrous ends, then you can enjoy made-up magic.

  1. This article is based on chapter 8 of a pending nonfiction work in progress.
  2. In fact, many Christian warnings about “witchcraft” can encourage the very sins of divination and idolatrous self-protection that motivate actual occult practices. See Christian Parents, Please Stop Practicing White Magic, Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Sept. 26, 2014.
  3. Protect Your Children from HARRY POTTER Occultism,” Dr. Ted Baehr at MovieGuide, undated article.
  4. Todd Friel, “Wretched Radio” episode dated July 19, 2011, accessed via private archive.
  5. For a fuller exploration of Deut. 18, see Winners Don’t Do Witchcraft, Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Oct. 31, 2013.
  6. Prov. 17:8 sounds like a medieval proverb with its colloquial reference to a “magic stone.” Ezekiel 13 includes a far more negative reference to magic wristbands used in divination.

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14 Comments on "Deuteronomy 18 Witchcraft: What It Is and Isn’t"

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Heather
Guest

The only thing I’ve gotta say is that, by the strictest definition, Elsa is not a witch. Yes, in the movie they called it “magic”, but nobody really uses the original definition for magic anymore. The definition for magic is more used like, “Hey, I’m cool. I was born with powers!”.  She was born with the ability to turn things into ice like someone is born with the ability to write, draw, sing, etc.  Witches aren’t born with super powers.

Just as a side note, I don’t mind books or movies with magic in it.

Heather
Guest

The only thing I’ve gotta say is that, by the strictest definition, Elsa is not a witch. Yes, in the movie they called it “magic”, but nobody really uses the original definition for magic anymore. The definition for magic is more used like, “Hey, I’m cool. I was born with powers!”.  She was born with the ability to turn things into ice like someone is born with the ability to write, draw, sing, etc.  Witches aren’t born with super powers.

Just as a side note, I don’t mind books or movies with magic in it.

Kessie
Guest

Harry Potter was born with powers, just like Elsa and Wolverine and Thor and Luke Skywalker, but the poor guy gets all the hate …

dmdutcher
Guest

Thor is a bad example. If you were a Christian in the Marvel Universe, you’d view Thor as a false god, because he’s the personification of the Norse deity. Luke is also a bad example, because the Force is definitely an anti-Christian metaphysical system. HP uses magic, but a new trope is that magical capacity is genetic; doesn’t change the fact that he straight up uses divination and other classical magic tropes.

One of the arguments fundamentalists use is that often the best way for demons to deceive people would be to make magic into a natural force in order to hide their existence. It used to be a trope in Christian fiction, or end-times stuff. Like The Archon Conspiracy did this for UFOs-demons masquerading as aliens because people believe naturalistic explanations better than straight up witchcraft.

I don’t think the arguments are correct, but it’s a bit more sophisticated than that.

dmdutcher
Guest

Thor is a bad example. If you were a Christian in the Marvel Universe, you’d view Thor as a false god, because he’s the personification of the Norse deity. Luke is also a bad example, because the Force is definitely an anti-Christian metaphysical system. HP uses magic, but a new trope is that magical capacity is genetic; doesn’t change the fact that he straight up uses divination and other classical magic tropes.

One of the arguments fundamentalists use is that often the best way for demons to deceive people would be to make magic into a natural force in order to hide their existence. It used to be a trope in Christian fiction, or end-times stuff. Like The Archon Conspiracy did this for UFOs-demons masquerading as aliens because people believe naturalistic explanations better than straight up witchcraft.

I don’t think the arguments are correct, but it’s a bit more sophisticated than that.

Kessie
Guest

Harry Potter was born with powers, just like Elsa and Wolverine and Thor and Luke Skywalker, but the poor guy gets all the hate …

Shannon McDermott
Guest

He does not address the questions of whether these pagan strategies actually work or whether they summon Satanic or demonic power.

Curiously enough, there are multiple instances in the Bible of witchcraft (meaning sorcery or magic) working. In the account of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians performed, by their “secrets arts”, some of the same miracles that Moses did: turning a staff into a snake, water into blood, and summoning frogs up from the Nile. The plague of gnats was the turning point; the magicians tried to imitate the feat but could not, and told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!”

In Acts, we have the story of a slave girl who was a genuine fortune-teller – by a spirit.

There is also the mysterious account of Saul consulting the witch of Endor, and a description of Nebuchadnezzar engaging in divination – and receiving the answer to march on Jerusalem, just as God had decreed he would.

Balaam also used sorcery, and he was regarded as very efficacious. “Those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.” God later declared that He had “delivered” Israel by not permitting Balaam to curse them, so it would seem Balaam had some power.

So the problem with magic (in the Biblical sense, not the Disney sense) probably goes deeper than simple idolatry.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

He does not address the questions of whether these pagan strategies actually work or whether they summon Satanic or demonic power.

Curiously enough, there are multiple instances in the Bible of witchcraft (meaning sorcery or magic) working. In the account of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians performed, by their “secrets arts”, some of the same miracles that Moses did: turning a staff into a snake, water into blood, and summoning frogs up from the Nile. The plague of gnats was the turning point; the magicians tried to imitate the feat but could not, and told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!”

In Acts, we have the story of a slave girl who was a genuine fortune-teller – by a spirit.

There is also the mysterious account of Saul consulting the witch of Endor, and a description of Nebuchadnezzar engaging in divination – and receiving the answer to march on Jerusalem, just as God had decreed he would.

Balaam also used sorcery, and he was regarded as very efficacious. “Those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.” God later declared that He had “delivered” Israel by not permitting Balaam to curse them, so it would seem Balaam had some power.

So the problem with magic (in the Biblical sense, not the Disney sense) probably goes deeper than simple idolatry.

notleia
Guest

I’m pretty sure I expressed last time that I find it hard to even care about this because it is, after all, fictional and/or superstitious. But since I’m big into free will, I have to say that I don’t really like your conclusion that God doesn’t like people doing what little they can to affect their lives. For one, I don’t believe God is a micromanager (hella lot of problems with theodicy otherwise), so we’re mostly left to our own devices anyway. People, after all, only have so much control over their lives, and I can’t begrudge them trying to make it as little crappy as possible (with the obvious caveat that they don’t harm others).

So my take is that the motive behind the witchcraft prohibition is not against people who try to do as much as they can to keep their lives as little crappy as possible, but against those who get waaaay to absorbed in control-freaking destiny/future/whatevs that they end up doing crappy things in the here and now, like human sacrifice. Or those who exploit the people who are afraid and want (the illusion of) control. *Ahemahem* like fire-and-brimstoners who use it to manipulate people into the fold.

notleia
Guest

I’m pretty sure I expressed last time that I find it hard to even care about this because it is, after all, fictional and/or superstitious. But since I’m big into free will, I have to say that I don’t really like your conclusion that God doesn’t like people doing what little they can to affect their lives. For one, I don’t believe God is a micromanager (hella lot of problems with theodicy otherwise), so we’re mostly left to our own devices anyway. People, after all, only have so much control over their lives, and I can’t begrudge them trying to make it as little crappy as possible (with the obvious caveat that they don’t harm others).

So my take is that the motive behind the witchcraft prohibition is not against people who try to do as much as they can to keep their lives as little crappy as possible, but against those who get waaaay to absorbed in control-freaking destiny/future/whatevs that they end up doing crappy things in the here and now, like human sacrifice. Or those who exploit the people who are afraid and want (the illusion of) control. *Ahemahem* like fire-and-brimstoners who use it to manipulate people into the fold.

HG Ferguson
Guest

Several things strike me here about your interpretation of this entire subject.  I have the distinct, very distinct impression that you don’t believe magic is real, therefore “fictional magic” is okay.  Another comment has dealt with this, so I won’t.  What is more serious is you want “magic” to be okay.  It’s not.  The practice of magic, any magic in this world, is condemned by God not merely for the reasons you state but also because it is Satan’s “hand,” to use the OT figurative language.  It’s real and it works because someone  makes it work for them.  But my greatest concern is your insistence that  magic is “okay” if it’s not in the context of pagan idolatry.  Therefore all the magical practices in Potter are good because they’re not actually worshipping false gods.  This is like saying it’s okay to have sex with a prostitute as long as it is not in a temple or a grove context.  It’s “okay” because it’s not in the context of false worship.  Is that true?  Of course not.  God calls magic “toevah” in Hebrew — abomination, but are you aware of what that word actually means?  The sight of something so disgusting, so revolting, it makes you vomit at the very sight of it.  God doesn’t think magic is “okay,” it makes Him puke.  The practices of magic are condemned by God, period, no matter what the “context” is.  You are the one trying to do a “runaround” a commandment of God so clear there can be no “perception” to misunderstand.  I’m not speaking of the “fictional magic” of other worlds like Narnia, like Middle-earth, even the alternate fantasy “Norway” of Frozen.  I am speaking of Harry Potter and the like firmly set in this world with the unbliblical worldview that practicing these things is okay.  I believe you and others are working toward the establishment of a mindset where it will be acceptable for a “christian” hero or heroine to use magical practices, a “christian” Potter.  It has probably already been written but we must create the atmosphere for it to be accepted first.  But it is not accepted.  Not by God.  Not by the Words of YHWH.  Magicians are always the enemies of God, not His servants.  Christians do not practice “fictional magic,” for magic NOT FICTIONAL.  It is the enemy of God.  Those who serve it are the dogs outside the city.  If a story is ever published with a “christian” protagonist using the magical practices God  condemns, then we have truly arrived.  At the Tashlan Lewis warned us of, where truth and lies, Christ and Satan, become indistinguishable.  As for me, I’ll stand with God and call magic what He does: toevah — to be shunned, even in our writing, rather than adored.

notleia
Guest

I haz a confused. You for seriously really real believe that magic is real? Um, why? And I don’t understand your distinction between Harry Potter and, specifically, fictional Norway in Frozen. They are both fictional takes on regions of this factual Blue Marble of ours.

(Also, I have heard from Jewish sources that toevah is not a perfect synonym with “abomination.” Apparently it’s a term relating to ritual cleanliness and not morality. And I have never heard anyone conflate ritual cleanliness with morality. That is, after all, the point of the Levite in the Good Samaritan story, that they are not the same thing.)

notleia
Guest

I haz a confused. You for seriously really real believe that magic is real? Um, why? And I don’t understand your distinction between Harry Potter and, specifically, fictional Norway in Frozen. They are both fictional takes on regions of this factual Blue Marble of ours.

(Also, I have heard from Jewish sources that toevah is not a perfect synonym with “abomination.” Apparently it’s a term relating to ritual cleanliness and not morality. And I have never heard anyone conflate ritual cleanliness with morality. That is, after all, the point of the Levite in the Good Samaritan story, that they are not the same thing.)

HG Ferguson
Guest

Several things strike me here about your interpretation of this entire subject.  I have the distinct, very distinct impression that you don’t believe magic is real, therefore “fictional magic” is okay.  Another comment has dealt with this, so I won’t.  What is more serious is you want “magic” to be okay.  It’s not.  The practice of magic, any magic in this world, is condemned by God not merely for the reasons you state but also because it is Satan’s “hand,” to use the OT figurative language.  It’s real and it works because someone  makes it work for them.  But my greatest concern is your insistence that  magic is “okay” if it’s not in the context of pagan idolatry.  Therefore all the magical practices in Potter are good because they’re not actually worshipping false gods.  This is like saying it’s okay to have sex with a prostitute as long as it is not in a temple or a grove context.  It’s “okay” because it’s not in the context of false worship.  Is that true?  Of course not.  God calls magic “toevah” in Hebrew — abomination, but are you aware of what that word actually means?  The sight of something so disgusting, so revolting, it makes you vomit at the very sight of it.  God doesn’t think magic is “okay,” it makes Him puke.  The practices of magic are condemned by God, period, no matter what the “context” is.  You are the one trying to do a “runaround” a commandment of God so clear there can be no “perception” to misunderstand.  I’m not speaking of the “fictional magic” of other worlds like Narnia, like Middle-earth, even the alternate fantasy “Norway” of Frozen.  I am speaking of Harry Potter and the like firmly set in this world with the unbliblical worldview that practicing these things is okay.  I believe you and others are working toward the establishment of a mindset where it will be acceptable for a “christian” hero or heroine to use magical practices, a “christian” Potter.  It has probably already been written but we must create the atmosphere for it to be accepted first.  But it is not accepted.  Not by God.  Not by the Words of YHWH.  Magicians are always the enemies of God, not His servants.  Christians do not practice “fictional magic,” for magic NOT FICTIONAL.  It is the enemy of God.  Those who serve it are the dogs outside the city.  If a story is ever published with a “christian” protagonist using the magical practices God  condemns, then we have truly arrived.  At the Tashlan Lewis warned us of, where truth and lies, Christ and Satan, become indistinguishable.  As for me, I’ll stand with God and call magic what He does: toevah — to be shunned, even in our writing, rather than adored.

PaladinWat
Guest

Picture this. I start up a game of the fantasy MMO Guild Wars 2 and make my character a Guardian: a noble defender of …something…? with power from… who knows where? He’s dignified, moral, helps people with their farms, and defends the lands from the warlike centaurs. He fights using “spirit weapons,” “sigils,” “arcane powers,” etc. Lots of glowing blue stuff flying everywhere, blue fire burning the enemies, talk about “blessings” from fictional “gods” in the ingame world, etc. The Guardian is similar to the Paladin archetype in other fiction. Meanwhile, other players are running around casting spells as the “Necromancer” class.

It’s so weird typing this all out. Should a Christian have any part in playing a game like this? If so, what kind of a mindset should he have while playing? What does God think of this? Are fantasy stories/worlds with spiritual themes inherently evil? What if my character is “the good guy”? What if I never want to do any sort of magic in real life but I like playing games that happen to have those kind of themes?

What do you guys think of this?

PaladinWat
Guest

Picture this. I start up a game of the fantasy MMO Guild Wars 2 and make my character a Guardian: a noble defender of …something…? with power from… who knows where? He’s dignified, moral, helps people with their farms, and defends the lands from the warlike centaurs. He fights using “spirit weapons,” “sigils,” “arcane powers,” etc. Lots of glowing blue stuff flying everywhere, blue fire burning the enemies, talk about “blessings” from fictional “gods” in the ingame world, etc. The Guardian is similar to the Paladin archetype in other fiction. Meanwhile, other players are running around casting spells as the “Necromancer” class.

It’s so weird typing this all out. Should a Christian have any part in playing a game like this? If so, what kind of a mindset should he have while playing? What does God think of this? Are fantasy stories/worlds with spiritual themes inherently evil? What if my character is “the good guy”? What if I never want to do any sort of magic in real life but I like playing games that happen to have those kind of themes?

What do you guys think of this?

PaladinWat
Guest

Picture this. I start up a game of the fantasy MMO Guild Wars 2 and make my character a Guardian: a noble defender of …something…? with power from… who knows where? He’s dignified, moral, helps people with their farms, and defends the lands from the warlike centaurs. He fights using “spirit weapons,” “sigils,” “arcane powers,” etc. Lots of glowing blue stuff flying everywhere, blue fire burning the enemies, talk about “blessings” from fictional “gods” in the ingame world, etc. The Guardian is similar to the Paladin archetype in other fiction. Meanwhile, other players are running around casting spells as the “Necromancer” class.

It’s so weird typing this all out. Should a Christian have any part in playing a game like this? If so, what kind of a mindset should he have while playing? What does God think of this? Are fantasy stories/worlds with spiritual themes inherently evil? What if my character is “the good guy”? What if I never want to do any sort of magic in real life but I like playing games that happen to have those kind of themes?

What do you guys think of this?

PaladinWat
Guest

Picture this. I start up a game of the fantasy MMO Guild Wars 2 and make my character a Guardian: a noble defender of …something…? with power from… who knows where? He’s dignified, moral, helps people with their farms, and defends the lands from the warlike centaurs. He fights using “spirit weapons,” “sigils,” “arcane powers,” etc. Lots of glowing blue stuff flying everywhere, blue fire burning the enemies, talk about “blessings” from fictional “gods” in the ingame world, etc. The Guardian is similar to the Paladin archetype in other fiction. Meanwhile, other players are running around casting spells as the “Necromancer” class.

It’s so weird typing this all out. Should a Christian have any part in playing a game like this? If so, what kind of a mindset should he have while playing? What does God think of this? Are fantasy stories/worlds with spiritual themes inherently evil? What if my character is “the good guy”? What if I never want to do any sort of magic in real life but I like playing games that happen to have those kind of themes?

What do you guys think of this?

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