Putting Magic in its Place: Appreciating Contextual Differences

Moses’ farewell speech in Deuteronomy functioned as a “last lecture,” recounting forty years of history and laws to the generation imminently entering the Land of Israel. Thus, we as readers should anticipate the rehashing of laws that once appeared in earlier books of the Bible. Does this make for boring reading? Absolutely not. Appreciating the literary and contextual differences between what is stated in Deuteronomy in contrast to the earlier biblical works is a nuanced and thought-provoking endeavor.

One example of this phenomenon is the Bible’s prohibition against performing magic. The prohibition is first stated in Exodus 22, then again in Leviticus 19, and finally in Deuteronomy 18.[i]

The starkest difference is the context, the verses surrounding the prohibition of magic. While the prohibitions in Exodus 22 and Leviticus 19 are stated in the same breath as the prohibition to engage in inappropriate sexual unions, the one in Deuteronomy 18 is stated in the context of a commandment to heed the words of prophets.

This is the progression of verses in Exodus 22: Verses fifteen and sixteen mandate that a man who engaged in premarital sex with a virgin is obligated to pay a dowry and wed her unless her father objects to the marriage. Then verse seventeen inserts, “a sorceress shall not be suffered to live.”[ii] Returning to the topic at hand, verse eighteen commands death for one who engages in bestiality.

The commandment to kill a sorceress has no (apparent) connection to sexuality whatsoever, but this oddity also appears twice in Leviticus.

In a potpourri of laws ranging from instructions for proper sacrifices[iii] to honoring one’s parents,[iv] Leviticus 19 also recounts the prohibition of magic in the context of illicit sexual unions. In verse twenty-nine, the law prohibits a father from making his daughter into a harlot. Two verses later, the law prohibits one from seeking out ghosts and spirits. The same occurs in Leviticus 20. The prohibition of magic appears in verses six and twenty-seven, with all the forbidden sexual unions (i.e. arayot) sandwiched in the middle.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch takes a creative peshat-based approach to explain the relationship between these two topics. He notes that the sorceress and the one who engages in bestiality meet the same end: the death penalty.[v] Both deserve the death penalty because of the sin’s inherent immorality. The sorceress has a “corrupting influence on society,”[vi] because sorcery is “ludicrous”[vii] and “absurd.”[viii] The one who engages in bestiality does not affect society like a sorceress, but is worthy of the death penalty, because bestiality is “a crime of the most vile degradation.”[ix] Although both sins will result in the death penalty, the subtle differences in the phrasing of the verdict indicate how the crime affects the community. The blanket statement that a sorceress “shall not be suffered to live” charges the community with abolishing “corrupting influences”[x] from within its midst, while the one who engaged in bestiality “will be put to death,” because he “forfeited his life through his crime.”[xi]

Unlike R. Hirsch, who connects the punishments, the authors of Da’at Mikra insert a key point of information to connect sexuality and magic. The succession of laws reflects the common practice in biblical times of sorceresses sleeping with animals in order to engage in sorcery.[xii] In the name of practicality, therefore, it was logical to couple the two laws together.

The patterned connection of magic and sexuality, however, does not continue in Deuteronomy; the reference to forbidden sexual unions is conspicuously absent when the verses in Deuteronomy discuss the prohibition of magic.[xiii] Instead, the prohibition is padded by laws regarding Levite portions[xiv] and commandments to heed righteous prophets.[xv]

Many contemporary and medieval commentators on Deuteronomy suggest that the juxtaposition of magic to prophecy is a logical progression.

For example, medieval commentators Ramban and Seforno[xvi] argue that the contrast between magic and prophecy is the inappropriate and appropriate forms of ascertaining the Word of God. Considering the verses through a psycho-analytic lens, Ramban articulates that “people desire to know the future and delve into many faculties,”[xvii] indicating that people will tap in to all sorts of means, even magic, to learn their fate. Therefore, “a prophet will rise from within your midst [and God] will give words to his mouth and you shall listen to it.”[xviii] The prophet’s role validates the impulse to learn one’s fate, showing how the desire is appropriate so long as it is achieved through appropriate means. Magic would be inappropriate, but prophecy is not.

Ramban and Seforno were not only extrapolating from the peshat meaning based on the immediate context of the chapter, but also speaking to a meta-theme in the laws of Deuteronomy – that the law often allows the ends so long as one utilizes appropriate means. Two of many examples include a warrior acquiring an eshet yefat to’ar[xix] and the permission to eat meat outside the Temple.[xx] In both instances, the law offers an avenue of acceptable action in response to a less than ideal situation.

Modern Bible scholar James Kugel interpreted the proximity of magic and prophets to be indicative of Moses’ personal agenda. Moses feared that the Israelites would panic over his death, thinking that his death would break their most direct line of communication to God. This would entice the Israelites to turn to the aid of non-Jewish magicians presiding in Israel, even though the law in Leviticus already prohibited such behavior. Thus, Moses offered a subtle message, indicating that Israelites should not succumb to magic to ascertain the future. Rather, they should first look to God’s prophets. [xxi]

This explanation comes to answer the hiccup in the parallel, the split between the presentation of the prohibition in Deuteronomy and the presentation in prior books of the Bible. How could it be that the prohibition in Deuteronomy is not stated in the context of immoral sexuality as it is in Exodus and Leviticus? Kugel shows that the book of Deuteronomy could not pose the prohibition in the same terms. Doing so would have been a lost opportunity. Moses needed to state the prohibition to impart a crucial message to his people – that the Almighty will continue guiding the Israelites even when new leadership takes the place of the old. Moses spoke to the needs of his people.


Sarah Robinson is a junior at SCW majoring in Psychology and Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i]               This article contrasts the prohibition in Exodus and Leviticus to the prohibition in Deuteronomy. I take this approach because Deuteronomy is inherently a book of repetition.

[ii]           My own translation

[iii]           Leviticus 19:5-8.

[iv]           Leviticus 19:3.

[v]           It is likely that R. Hirsch predicated his thoughts on Berakhot 21b where R. Yehudah stipulates that “mah Ov ve-Yid’oni be-sekilah, af mekhashefah be-sekilah” – “just like the Ov and Yid’oni [are given the death penalty of] stoning, so too [the] sorceress [is given the death penalty of] stoning.” Both sins carry the identical punishment. That is what they share in common.

[vi]           R. Hirsch to Exodus 22:17-19, s.v. mekhashefah.

[vii]                          Ibid.

[viii]                            Ibid.

[ix]                             Ibid.

[x]                              Ibid.

[xi]                             Ibid.

[xii]          Da’at Mikra to Exodus 22:18, s.v. kol shokhev im behemah mot yumat.

[xiii]          Deuteronomy 18: 9-15.

[xiv]          Deuteronomy 18:1-8.

[xv]          Deuteronomy 18:16-22.

[xvi]          Ramban to Deuteronomy 18:13, s.v. tamim tiheyeh im Hashem Elokekha and Seforno there, s.v. tamim tiheyeh. Note that Ramban lived between 1194-1270 while Seforno lived between 1470-1550. Perhaps Seforno had access to the Ramban and intentionally echoed his interpretation – hence the similarity of their language and content.

[xvii]         Ramban to Deuteronomy 18:9-12, s.v. lo tilmad la’asot ke-toevot ha-goyim ha-hem. Translation is my own.

[xviii]         Ibid.

[xix]          Deuteronomy 21:10-14. These verses permit a warrior to take a captured woman as a wife and sleep with her after she de-beautifies herself and spends a month mourning for her family. Kiddiushin 22b records Rav’s rationale to permit this practice as “lo dibrah Torah elah ke-neged Yetser ha-Ra” –“the Torah only speaks to the evil inclination.” According to Rav, the Torah takes a practice to be objectively bad and, through more appropriate means, permits one to indulge. In context, the Torah allows the warrior to take this woman home because his evil inclination would impulsively desire this woman. Granted, the view that the eshet yefat to’ar is the Bible’s avenue for permitting something that should ideally be avoided falls in the camp of Rashi and Ramban who argue that the de-beautification process occurs before the warrior can sleep with the captive, but this is not a universally accepted understanding.

[xx]          Although Deuteronomy 12:6 explicitly states that one should offer sacrifices in the Temple, Deuteronomy 12:21 permits people to sacrifice within their own towns. R. Yishma’el in Hullin 16b is sure to emphasize that this permits the slaughter of only basar ta’avah, meat for which one has an appetite. In other words, in response to the human impulse to eat meat, slaughter even outside the Temple is permitted.

[xxi]          James L. Kugel, The Bible as it Was (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997), 507-508.