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In Exodus 7:10--14, Pharaoh's magicians are able to turn their staffs into snakes, although their snakes get eaten by Aaron's. From where do they derive this supernatural power? Are there other gods that have some power, but Yahweh, the true God, has more? If Yahweh is more powerful, why does he allow the lesser gods to preform miracles at all? Or if there is only one God, does Yahweh preform miracles for believers of other gods?

This is not the only instance of magic in the bible. In 1 Samuel 28:7, Saul turns to a medium who conjures up the spirit of Samuel. Is this through God's power or some other power? God disapproves of mediums in Leviticus 19:31, so why would he allow a medium to perform a miracle?

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    – agarza
    Commented May 27 at 2:47
  • "Pharaoh's magicians are able to turn their staffs into snakes", or perhaps they simply used what today we call "stage magic". ¶ "a medium who conjures up the spirit of Samuel", or at least did something that made it seem like she had. How would anyone have known what the real Samuel looked like? And even if it were a real spirit, it could have been one of Satan's demons pretending to be Samuel. Commented May 27 at 12:29
  • It seems the answers are in two flavors: either the miracles are illusions/tricks/sleight-of-hand (Jed Schaaf)) or God endows angels and some humans with supernatural powers while asking them to not use them, but they can disobey (Dieter, Dan Fefferman) or a combination of both (Perry Webb). Commented May 27 at 23:21
  • Welcome to Hermeneutics! This is a very interesting question. Be advised that it could get some negative feedback merely because we prefer questions to focus on one, single Bible passage, not on themes across Bible passages. Even in your question, if the Exodus passage were the main text, then 1 Samuel a secondary text, that would be closer. Consider editing it to make this more clear, then your question will probably get some good feedback. It is a great idea you're asking about.
    – Jesse
    Commented May 28 at 2:45

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The scriptures make it clear that not all miracles are performed in the power of God. I call this the "single actor fallacy." God gave humans and angelic powers free will and a limited amount of power. Satan has quite a lot of power . . . for now.

Consider these references in support of my assertion:

“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” – Matthew 24:24 ESV

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders . . . – 2 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV

. . . and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. – Revelation 13:14 ESV

Also beware of binary thinking, called "false dilemmas" or "false dichotomies." Statements that provide only two choices such as "Either God is all powerful or he is not" is an example.

A famous application of a false dilemma is "If God is all-powerful and can create anything, can God create a rock that even He cannot lift?"

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Concerning the Exodus account, I have heard that the Egyptian "magicians" had a type of snake that would stiffen when they held it just right (perhaps akin to the xenodermus from southeast Asia), giving the illusion of a stick turning into a snake. They may have also called on demons to perform their magic.

The medium that King Saul attended and who called up Samuel's ghost apparently wasn't expecting the actual Samuel to appear; prior to this instance she either may have been a simple charlatan using atmosphere and "normal" illusions to perform her seances (which may have been how she escaped Saul's purge) or else may have called on demons who pretended to be dead people.

If either of these cases used demons or demonic power to perform these events, it's clear from the results that God allowed it in order to demonstrate His total supremacy.

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  • Should we view the scripture as "what it appeared as to the imperfect observer" or did the divine inspiration/dictation make sure that the scenes described could not have been misperceived? Commented May 28 at 2:45
  • @charmoniumQ I don't think it's ever possible to be absolutely and completely unambiguous, just due to the nature of language and translation. However, I do believe that the more easy forms of ambiguity only exist in the Bible concerning unimportant matters, where it doesn't matter whether someone believes one way or another on that thing. (But I also believe that there is one "right way" to interpret it.)
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 31 at 22:50
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Pseudo (false) signs and wonders are invariably produced in order to deceive the wicked.

  • Matt 24:24, Mark 13:22 predict false signs and wonders performed by false Christs and false prophets
  • 2 Thess 2:9 predicts the rise of the lawless one accompanied by false signs and wonders
  • Rev 16:14 predicts that demons will perform false signs and wonders
  • Rev 13:13, 14 19:20 predict that the great false prophet (third beast of the Beast Trinity) will perform false signs and wonders
  • The witch of Endor conjured the ghost of the prophet Samuel by trickery, 1 Sam 29
  • Pharoah summoned sorcerers (Ex 7, 9) as did king Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2)
  • Paul had to remove the influence of Elymas/Bar-Jesus the sorcerer, Acts 13:8, 9
  • Jeremiah also preached against sorcerers, Jer 27:9

It should be remembered that Deut 13:1-5 contains a stern warning about the veracity of signs and wonders to see if they are genuine. Similarly, Matt 24:24 contains Jesus’ warning not to base one’s faith purely on Signs and Wonders.

Similarly, Luke 16:30, 31 contains a warning that faith must not be based on miracles but upon our trust in God and His Word:

And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

The existence of an omnipotent God does not preclude in any way the existence of deceptive sorcerers and false prophets working their magic arts to deceive.

A Christian's faith should be based purely on their trust in Jesus as Heb 12:2, 3, Col 3:1-3 plainly teach. There is nothing wrong with miracles, but they should only confirm, not convince.

The healing of the 10 lepers (Luke 17:11-19) is helpful here about the place of miracles:

  • the lepers had to have faith in Christ before their healing as demonstrated by Jesus' instruction to go to the priest before they were healed.
  • Despite the miracle, only one returned to “give glory to God” (Luke 17:18)
  • Jesus plainly declared that the ex-leper's “faith has made you well!” (V19)

That is, faith must precede miracles, not follow them. The same is taught in other places where Jesus often said, “your faith has healed you”, such as Matt 9:22, 15:28, Mark 5:34, 10:52, Luke 8:48, 50, 17:19, 18:42, Acts 3:16, 14:9, James 5:15, etc.

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    Are the miracles "false" in the sense that they are faked (e.g., by sleight-of-hand or optical illusions)? Or false in a spiritual sense, in that they lead humans astray? Commented May 27 at 23:23
  • @charmoniumQ - good question - any miracle that is not of God or intended to glorify God is a false miracle. Satan and his minions are very capable for performing miracles.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 27 at 23:33
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Dealing with the Exodus, there is some indication that the Egyptian magicians used tricks similar to magicians today. That is why Aron's staff swallowed the magicians snakes, demonstrating that God's finger performed the miracle.

For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. (Exodus 7:12, ESV)

with their spells The Hebrew stem l-w-t means “to enwrap,” so that the noun would mean “things kept under wraps,” or closely guarded secrets. The use of “spells” contrasts strongly with the simplicity of Aaron’s act, which is unaccompanied by any incantation or praxis. The term itself suggests that the wonder belonged to the magicians’ conventional repertoire of tricks. In fact, to this day Egyptian snake charmers practice the deception of turning a rod into a serpent.15 They are able to induce catatonic rigidity in the native cobra by exerting strong pressure on a nerve just below its head. In this state, the snake assumes a rodlike appearance and can even be handled by onlookers. The jolt it receives when thrown to the ground restores its mobility. -- Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (p. 37). Jewish Publication Society.

Note the verses about the gnats:

The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast.  Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:18–19, ESV)

However, from the standpoint of those reading the Scriptures, the indication is Saul actually talked to Samuel in 1 Samuel 28. The Law given to Moses does not say people cannot speak to the dead. It tells them not to.

“A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.” (Lev. 20:27, ESV)

The afterlife is one of biblical theology’s most compelling themes. ... Saul immediately discerns that it is Samuel ascending from the underworld realm of the dead. There is no indication in the biblical text that the medium is lying or that she is deceived. ... The biblical writers believed in ghosts—the dead who lived on in the afterlife and could be contacted. But such contact was forbidden (Deut 18:9–14). The reason was not that it couldn’t be done; it could. Rather, God insisted that he be the lone source of information from the spiritual world for his people. The command was for their own good—to prevent them from being deceived or harmed. The incident at Endor was exceptional, allowed by God for the purpose of reiterating his judgment of Saul. -- Heiser, M. S. (2017). "Samuel’s Ghost and Saul’s Judgment." (ch 24) The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms (p. 100-102). Lexham Press.

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  • My confusion is this: Is it by God's power that the spirit appeared? Or do some humans have the power to make spirits appear? Why would God give them that power if he does not want them to use it? This is quite different than endowing humans with free will and "normal" powers. Commented May 27 at 23:09
  • Then ask if it isn't humanly possible, why would God forbid it?
    – Perry Webb
    Commented May 28 at 1:30
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Some scholars see Exodus 7 as part of an old strand of the Torah in which which other gods were indeed seen as being real, but Yahweh is the most powerful; and he is also the only god which the the Israelites are allowed to worship. This is also reflected in the 10 commandments:

Exodus 20:2-3

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 You shall not have other gods beside me.

Note that the text does not deny the existence of other gods, but only forbids their worship by the people of Israel.

Regarding 1 Sam 28, this is a different issue. The Bible does not deny that that mediums can contact the dead, but it forbids them to practice their art.

Lev. 20:27

A man or a woman who acts as a medium or clairvoyant shall be put to death. They shall be stoned to death; their bloodguilt is upon them.

Conclusion: God's omnipotence is not contradicted by magic or mediumship, any more than it is contradicted by human sin. In the case of Ex. 7, the text may express an old strand of the Torah in which God was not yet seen to be the only god, even though he was understood to be the most powerful one. In the case of 1 Sam. 28, mediumship as an actual phenomenon is not denied in the Bible, but it is against the Levitical code for people with such skills to act in that capacity.

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  • It sounds like you may be implying that Jews believe in the existence of multiple gods. If so, you are mistaken. Commented May 28 at 4:04

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