We lacked the time in our recent study through Genesis 44 to discuss Joseph’s practice of divination with his silver drinking bowl (Gen 44.5, 15). Joseph’s claim taps into the nature of pagan magic as it is presented in Scripture and in history, a practice which is foreign to our modern age.
Our English Bibles translate “to practice divination” from the Hebrew word נחש (nachash, where the “ch” makes that stereotypical Middle Eastern plegm sound at the back of the throat). The practice takes its name from the animal of the same Hebrew name: the serpent. When Joseph claims to be able to practice divination, he is literally claiming to be able to listen to snakes—to practice snake magic.
The practice of snake magic is well-attested in the ancient world. Practically all ancient cultures attributed magic powers to snakes, and many modern ones still do. In Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, the naga are serpent-deities that dwell in the underworld. In ancient Greece, the famed Oracle of Delphi resided in the temple of Apollo, because the Greeks believed that Apollo slew the serpent-god Python there. Like the naga, Python dwelt in the underworld. The temple at Delphi sat over a fissure in the earth which was believed to give the oracle (named the Pythia, the feminine form of Python) access to the sickly-sweet vapors emanating from Python’s rotting carcass. The Greeks believed that these vapors allowed the Pythia to tell the future.
In the ancient near east, the practice of snake magic consisted of listening to the hissing of snakes. The ancients believed that the trained ear could discern whispers from the gods among the hissing. Diviners like Joseph were trained to handle snakes while listening for the secret knowledge, leading to the development of snake charming (though the modern practice of snake charming is most often associated with India, it traces its roots to ancient Egypt).
Of course, the Law of Moses bans snake magic, along with a whole host of heathen practices. “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination [snake magic] 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 18.10-12).
What makes these practices abominable? The Bible does not condemn paganism as superstitious; it condemns it as wicked, because it involves the real worship of real spiritual forces. To a degree, the Bible agrees with the heathens. They believed in what they were doing. They took their beliefs literally, not mythically. Ancient Greeks and Romans really thought that the Pythia could accurately predict the future. Where the heathens were wrong was that they misunderstand what and who they were worshipping.
If the heathens worshipped something real, then what was it? In Exodus 7.10-13, Pharaoh’s magicians used their sorcery to turn their staves into serpents (we find no smoke or mirrors in the text). Who gave them that power? In 2 Kings 3.27, the king of Moab offers his firstborn son as a burnt offering to his god, “and there came great wrath against Israel.” Whose wrath drove Israel back from the walls?
We find the answer in Scripture, along with the source of all mankind’s belief in snake magic: Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden (Gen 3.1ff). It may surprise us to see a talking snake in Genesis 3, but it wouldn’t have surprised an ancient reader, nor would the content of Eve’s conversation with the serpent: the serpent offers Eve secret knowledge (Gen 3.5), and Eve eats the fruit specifically to receive the secret knowledge (Gen 3.6).
Who heard the pagans’ prayers? Who received their children as burnt offerings? Whose whispers did they hear in the hissing of the snakes? It was not Molech, Baal, or Marduk. It was “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12.9).
We find others in Scripture engaged in snake magic: Laban (Gen 30.27); the servants of Ben-hadad, king of Syria (1 Kgs 20.33); the wicked King Manasseh (2 Kgs 21.6; 2 Chr 33.6); and even all Israel (2 Kgs 17.17). They were deceived and ensnared by the Adversary to worship him and to do what is wicked in the sight of God.
There is much to say about these men and about the false promises of the Adversary, which we will consider next week. We will also square the passages in Scripture about the powers of the heathen gods with other passages proclaiming their powerlessness. In time, we may also consider modern forms of “snake magic” which the Adversary uses to ensnare people today.
Let us wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life (Jude 21), and may the Lord rebuke the Adversary (Jude 9).