Friday, January 19, 2007

Egyptian Magic

[Repeated, in part from last February]

And now for a post about the Chartumei Mitzrayim[*], the Egyptian court magicians who attempted to duplicate Moshe's miricales. According to some, these mysterious men tapped into legitimate black magic, forces that God built into creation, and manipulated it to create wonders. And, for a time, these wonders deceived Pharoh into rejecting Moshe's demands.

Except, others say this all nonsense.

Notably, the Abarbanel writes that the court magicians were never able to perform a single miracle. He says they either used David Copperfield- illusions to trick Pharoh, or simply spread false rumors of their abilities. (My hunch is that (some? many? all?) Hasidic miracle-workers operate the same way. I eagerly wait a James Randi expose of their methods.)

Abraham ibn Ezra proposes that latayhem (enchantments or spells) comes from the word for flame, which Robert Alter says links the work of the magicians to the "fire and flash technique of the illusionist." As a rationalist, Ibn Ezra also doubted the power of magic.

Finally, we have another argument against the magicians made by Samason Rephael Hirsch. It is also a textual argument.

R' Hirsch points out that the Torah never actually says that the magicians were able to turn water to blood, or produce frogs, rather it says "And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments [v'yasu chen... b'latayhem]" According to Hirsch this doesn't mean that the magicians were successful, only that they imitated Aaron, ie: After Aaron hit the water or the dirt with his stick, the magicians copied his action with the powerless tools of their own trade.

He also asks (I'm paraphrasing) "Why would the magicians want more frogs and more lice? Wouldn't it make more sense if they were trying to remove the plauge?" And, in fact, the word the Torah uses to describe the intention of the magicians(l'hotzi) can mean both to "bring up" and to "remove."

Here then are the relevant passages as Samson Rephael Hirsch understands them with my own interpolations in blue:

6 And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt.

7 And the magicians copied Aaron's with their magic charms, [nontheless] frogs covered the land of Egypt. [How do we know the magicians were trying to remove the frogs, and failed? Because right away Pharoh calls for help. See next verse.]

8 Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said, Intreat the LORD, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may do sacrifice unto the LORD. [Doesn't sound like someone with much faith in magicians, does he?]

17 ...Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.

18 And the magicians copied Aaron's action with their magic charms to remove (l'hotzi) the lice, but they could not: so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. [This verse is the best proof of the magicians intentions, if you, follow SRH, and read l'hotzi as "remove": Immediately after we're told that the magicians could not "l'hotzi" the lice, the text says they were everywhere.]

[*]Robert Alter tells us that the word chartumin is an Egyptian loan word, borrowed from the designation for priest-magician.

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