D’var Torah, Chukat, 5772: Moses and Magic

by Kristine Garroway

Parashat Chukat contains two narratives that initially appear to be unrelated. The first story, one familiar to most, appears in Numbers 20:2–12. Here the Israelites are complaining again that they had a better life as slaves in Egypt, that God is not with them, and that Moses has brought them to the wilderness to die of thirst. God responds by commanding Moses to bring forth water from the rock. Moses strikes the rock, as he did previously (Exodus 17:2–7), and water gushes forth. Soon after, God chastises Moses and Aaron for not affirming the sanctity of the Eternal and prohibits them from entering the Promised Land. The second narrative is found Numbers 21:4–9. This less-familiar story recounts how, even after the miracle at the rock, the Israelites are still complaining that life was better in Egypt. As punishment for their complaints, God sends a plague of fiery serpents.

While one may find a link in the narratives based on their setting (people complaining in the wilderness), a more nuanced link exists, one that touches upon the role of magic and religion, in the ancient Israelite cult. To see this link, one needs to explain two things: how did Moses bring forth water from the rock and how exactly did the copper snake heal the Israelites? The first question is related to why Moses was punished for bringing forth the water from the rock. Commentators have weighed in with various opinions on this question, including: Moses struck twice, he struck instead of speaking (Rashi), and he struck the wrong rock (the people had chosen a different one).1 Each of these suggestions can be refuted. First, there is no evidence supporting the idea that Moses should not have struck the rock twice. Second, it’s reasonable to expect he would strike the rock as he did previously (Exodus 17:2–7). Finally, there is absolutely no evidence that he struck the wrong rock. So what did Moses do? Moses engaged in magic: he spoke and acted at the same time.

The new JPS translation of Numbers 20:8 states: “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order [unto] the rock to yield its water.” Following Ramban, Jacob Milgrom argues that the key word here is el, “unto.”2 It can mean not only “unto” (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra), but also “concerning” (Ramban), so that Moses and Aaron were to speak to the people concerning the rock so it would yield water.3Ramban then suggests that “speak to them” and “el” the rock were transposed so that the verse should read: “Gather the assembly together to the rock, and speak before their eyes . . .”4 Ramban also argues that we are to understand that Moses was to strike the rock as he did previously in Exodus (why else would he have the rod?), as well as speak before the people. This reading lets Milgrom reconstruct Numbers 20:8 as: You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community before the rock and strike the rock before their very eyes so that it will yield its water.”5 Thus, Moses speaks and acts.

What does this insight add to our knowledge of Moses’s great sin? In the ancient Near East the combination of speaking and acting was the key characteristic of magic; here Moses did both, and used magic to bring forth the water.6 In doing so, Moses took away the opportunity for God’s name to be sanctified (Numbers 20:12), placing the glory instead, upon himself.

Returning to the second narrative, we learn that the serpents that were sent as punishment against the complaining Israelites bit the people, and many died. Moses interceded and God instructed him to build a copper serpent and mount it on a pole. Whenever a person was bitten, he or she was to look toward the standard and be healed. The interesting tidbit here is that God did not take away the snake plague, but provided a means for the people to be healed from the inevitable snakebites. Who then was doing the healing, God or the snake? It appears from the text that the copper snake’s function was to heal people. Thus, one can make the argument that the copper snake was a form of sympathetic magic (magic to ward off harm). We know that the Egyptians employed sympathetic magic to repel snakes, and that the workers at the Timnah copper mines (located in the wilderness) used sympathetic magic to ward off snakes.7 Considering that the Israelites had just come up from Egypt and that Moses was raised in the Egyptian court, it is not unreasonable to think that the Israelites could have understood the copper snake in terms of sympathetic magic.

We are then left with two narratives that both suggest magic was practiced effectively and may have had some legitimate part in the Israelite cult.8 Yet one act is punished, and the other is rewarded. Why the difference? When Moses preforms magic in Numbers 20, he glorifies himself, not God’s name. However, in Numbers 21:8, God commands that the copper snake figure be built, and while its healing powers are sympathetic magic, the figure itself was fashioned at God’s behest, and thus glorifies God. So, it appears that even elements that are seemingly “foreign” in a religious context can find a place in our practice, as long as they are used with the intention of glorifying God, and not man.

1. Ramban, The Torah with Ramban’s Commentary, trans. by R. Nesanel Kasnett and others, The Art Scroll Series (NY: Mesorah Publications, 2009), p. 426;B’midbar Rabbah 19:9 2. J. Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary Numbers, Excurses 50 (Philadelphia: JPS, 1990), p. 450 3. Ramban, p. 426 4. Ibid, p.427 5. Milgrom, p. 250 6. B.Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethseda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2005; “Egypt,” A.H. Gardiner, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1923): “Magic, Egyptian” 7. See for example, Egyptian Book of the Dead curses 34 and 35, Egyptian protective amulets and charms with snakes, and copper snakes found at the Timnah mines 8. Other examples of the use of magic include: the sotah (Numbers 5:11–6:31), painting the doorposts at Pesach (Exodus 12:3–10), and placing a mezuzah on the door (Deuteronomy 11:20–21). Also, the Sh’ma was recited as a protective prayer morning and night, and hence has been connected to magical practices (See Encyclopaedia Judaica on “Shema, Reading Of” (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1996)

Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC–Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.

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