“He Has Shut Their Eyes”
Last week, we considered that the Hebrew verb nachash (“to practice divination”) literally refers to “snake magic” (we must note here that nachash is not the only Hebrew verb rendered “to practice divination” in our English Bibles). Most pagan cultures throughout history have believed that snakes possess a mystical connection to the nether realm, giving them access to secret knowledge. We considered that the ancients literally believed in snake magic and in other heathen practices, and we further considered some examples in the Scriptures—Pharaoh’s magicians in Ex 7.10-13 and the “great wrath against Israel” in 2 Kgs 3.27—that likewise take these heathen practices seriously.
We named several other examples of snake magic in Scripture, including Laban. Laban claimed to have learned through snake magic that the Lord had blessed him on account of Jacob (Gen 30.27). Of course, we know from Genesis that Laban is right—the Lord has blessed him on account of Jacob—but it might scandalize us to hear that snakes invoked the Holy Name of God to reveal this to Laban.
That brings us to this week’s topic. All these examples may cause us some difficulty when we read them alongside passages in Scripture that declare idols to be total frauds. Isaiah 44.6-20 is the classic text in this regard. The Lord declares through the prophet, “I am the first, and I am the last: besides me there is no other god” (44.6). A hilarious, farcical description follows: a foolish pagan cuts down a tree, half of which he burns to cook his food, and half of which he carves into an idol and calls his god. The man is clearly a fool for thinking that the same wood can be both his fuel and his lord. Isaiah summarizes: “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (44.20).
Psalm 115 is similarly dismissive of idols. “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (Ps 115.5-7). The psalmist likewise judges the idolater: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (115.8). The idol’s blindness is reflected in the idolater’s blindness, as Isaiah says, “He [God] has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see” (Isa 44.18).
Were the heathen gods real or not? One set of texts seems to say that they were; another says explicitly that they were not.
We must take care in how we reconcile these two kinds of texts. It is tempting to use one set of texts to dismiss the other. This is a temptation for the restoration movement, from the time of Alexander Campbell down to today. For example, Campbell’s former friend and fellow restorationist, John Thomas, parted ways with Campbell to start another group that calls themselves the “Christadelphians.” They promote a form of materialism that goes so far as to deny the existence of the Adversary and of demons (we should note that Campbell himself taught the existence and activity of demons).
Rather than use one text as a prooftext against another, we should allow Scripture to explain Scripture. In 1 Cor 10.19-20, Paul writes, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” Like the Latter Prophets and the Psalms, Paul denies that idols are anything. Like the Law and the Former Prophets, Paul affirms that something was there to receive the sacrifices and answer the prayers of the pagans. He identifies that something as demons.
Therefore, the heathen gods were “not real” in the sense that they were not gods to be compared with the God of Israel. The pagans were deluded into thinking that they worshipped gods like the God of Israel, and they believed that they could invoke their gods with graven images, all of which is folly. Paul reveals the truth: Baal, Molech, Chemosh, Ashtoreth, and the rest did (and do) exist—but they are demons, servants of the Adversary sent to deceive men.
To tie this back to Joseph’s snake magic in Gen 44, we should note something that Alexander Campbell pointed out back in 1851 in his Millennial Harbinger: “a demon is a knowing one, a leader, or teacher,” i.e., one who has secret knowledge, as the ancients supposed the snakes to have. The pagans bowed to images of gold and silver and listened to snakes, believing that their gods would open their eyes. Therefore the true and living God “shut their eyes, so that they cannot see.” It is Christ alone who “returns sight to the blind” (Luke 4.17-21; Matt 12.22-28) and gives light to the Gentiles (Luke 2.32).
The world’s desire for hidden knowledge is still alive and well, and so are the demons who deceived the ancients. Let us take care to only know Christ and “take every thought captive” to obey Him.