Miracles, Magic, and Medicine

The Bible is a book of faith, telling the story of how God acted in history to protect and save humankind. Miracles are an important part of that story. God's actions in miracles on behalf of the faithful are contrasted with the situation of those who looked to other gods and relied on magic, reading the stars, or calling on the spirits of the dead. Throughout the Bible, the miracles of God are extraordinary acts. These miracles are often unexplainable by the expectations, common at the time, of how nature works. 

The people praised God for these miracles, including God's amazing actions in Israel's history (Deut 7.19; 11.1-4; 34.10–12). The writers of psalms and the later teachers of the Law of Moses saw God working in these miracles to preserve and reward the Israelite people, and to keep them living in God’s ways (Ps 105; 107; 136; see also Neh 9).
 

Miracles

Throughout the Bible, miracles are presented as signs that point to a larger meaning. This is evident, for example, in the descriptions of the Israelites' experiences in the desert of Sinai, which show God’s special purpose for the people. Not only do they survive their ordeal, but they are brought into the land God promised to them so that they can worship the Lord (Deut 4.23-34; 6.21-25; 26.5-11; Josh 24.17). Miracles also helped the Israelites believe God’s promises because the Israelites could see them being fulfilled. Even a Babylonian king came to believe that Israel's God had miraculous power after he saw how God preserved the three faithful young Israelite men in the fiery furnace (Dan 3).

 

Jesus’ Miracles Show God’s Love and Power

The New Testament reports Jesus’ many miracles (see the chart below). Yet, when Jesus' opponents tried to test him by making him perform a miracle to prove that God was with him, Jesus refused (Matt 16.1–4; Mark 8.11,12; John 4.48; 6.26-34). Also, Jesus sometimes warned people not to tell anyone about his miracles (Mark 1.44; 5.43), possibly because non-believers would have thought Jesus was just a magician. Often Jesus performed miracles for people who already believed (Mark 2.5-12; 5.34). His miracles were not for showing off. Instead, they demonstrated God’s love for the people (Luke 4.18-21) and announced the presence of the Kingdom of God.  

 

Miracles in the Early Church

At the time of the early church, public miracles helped people recognize that God was at work (Acts 2.19–22, 43; 4.30; 5.12,13; 8.13). At the same time, some people wrongly thought that the ability to heal and do miracles was a result of magical powers. In Acts 8.9-24, a magician named Simon claimed to be converted to Christianity, but he still had to learn that God's power was a gift, and not some magic power that could be bought. The apostle Paul claimed that God helped him perform miracles to confirm the good news about Jesus and Paul's own role as an apostle (2 Cor 12.12). He also told of Jesus’ miracles to help people believe (Rom 15.15–19).

 

Magic, Sorcery, and Witchcraft

In the ancient world, the belief in magic, sorcery, and witchcraft were common. The people of Israel claimed that the miracles performed by their prophets and leaders were different from these things because they were based on God's power. The writers of the Scriptures often contrasted these “true” miracles with unusual acts done by the prophets and priests of other peoples and religions. For example, Joseph used God's help to interpret the dreams of the king of Egypt after the king's own magicians and wise men could not (Gen 41.1-36). Later, when the Egyptian king's magicians turned their walking sticks into snakes, Moses and his brother Aaron used God's power to do the same thing, and their snake ate the snakes created by the Egyptians (Exod 7.8-13). This showed the superiority of the God of Israel. See also the chart called “Key Events in Moses' Life.”  In another case, Elijah showed that the power of Israel’s God was greater than that of the god Baal when God helped Elijah win a contest against the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18.16-40). For more about Elijah see the mini-article called Elijah.

 

Witchcraft

Witchcraft was forbidden by the Law of Moses (Lev 19.26), because relying on spirits or powers other than God showed a lack of faith and trust in the one true God. Disobeying the command against witchcraft could lead to harsh punishment (Exod 22.18; Deut 18.10-13). When King Saul, Israel's first king, was afraid of the approaching Philistine army, he did not pray to God for help. Instead, he broke the law forbidding witchcraft and asked a woman from Endor who talked to spirits to call on Samuel, who died some time before (1 Sam 28.4-20). In another example, when the people of the northern kingdom (Israel) disobeyed God by worshiping the stars and using magic, or by worshiping idols like Asherah and Baal, God became so furious with them that he allowed them to be defeated by the Assyrians and carried away as prisoners (2 Kgs 17.16-18). Later, King Manasseh of the southern kingdom (Judah) sinned against God by worshiping the stars and planets, by practicing magic and witchcraft, and by asking fortune tellers for advice. Apparently, the advice he received included offering his own child as a sacrifice (2 Kgs 21.4-7). For Manasseh's terrible sins, the whole nation suffered God's judgment and punishment (2 Kgs 21.8-16). In another example, King Balak of Moab hired Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites, but Balaam would not do it (Num 22-24). His explanation to Balak contained this statement: “No magic charms can work against them--just look what God has done for his people” (Num 23.23).

Sorcery and Fortune Telling

Parts of the New Testament make clear that sorcery and fortune telling were caused by evil spirits. In one case, a slave girl lost her power to tell fortunes after Paul ordered an evil spirit to leave her. This angered her owners because she could no longer make money for them by telling fortunes (Acts 16.16-19). In Galatians, Paul includes witchcraft on the list of “shameful deeds” done by those who obey their own selfish desires instead of obeying God's Spirit (Gal 5.20). And in Revelation, a beast fooled people into believing in the beast who opposed God by doing magical miracles, such as making an idol speak as if it were alive (Rev 13.11-15).

 

Medicine and Healing

What does the Bible reveal about healers in the ancient world? In one part of the Old Testament, it says that King Asa’s death may have been from depending only on human healers, and not asking for God’s help (2 Chr 16.12,13). Also, the prophet Jeremiah questions whether medicine or doctors can truly provide healing (Jer 8.22). After all, God is seen as the main healer in the Old Testament (Exod 15.26; Ps 41.1-4; Jer 17.14; Hos 6.1). In fact, often the priests were seen as healers on God’s behalf (Lev 13.1-3; 14.1-20). That is why Hannah went to the temple to pray for God’s help once she realized that she could not have children (1 Sam 1.1-18). (In ancient times, this was seen as sickness in a woman).

 

Disease and Sickness

Some parts of the Bible reflect the belief that disease and sickness are caused by failing to live according to God's Law (Deut 28.21-23), while health and well-being were seen as the reward for trusting God (Exod 15.26). Other parts of the Bible question this belief (Job 2, 42.7). People with certain diseases were set apart from the rest of God's people because they were considered unclean (Lev 13). While this was done primarily for religious reasons, those who had these diseases were not allowed to worship or be among their friends and neighbors until they were cured and had gone through a ritual cleansing ceremony (Lev 14). 

 

A Great Healer

Jesus knew these laws about sickness and being cleansed, but he also showed himself to be a great healer. Many of Jesus' miracles included healing people considered unclean. He encouraged the ten men he healed of leprosy to show themselves to the priests, probably so they could go through the ritual cleansing and be welcomed back into the community of God's people. Another time, Jesus’ power healed a woman who had spent all her money and had gone to many doctors without finding a cure (Mark 5.25–34). Jesus also offered his healing to those who were not part of the Jewish people, just as the prophets before him had done. This was surely amazing to many people, and was a way of showing that God’s love is for everyone. 

 

Healing Shrines

Around the time of Jesus, Greeks and Romans went to the shrines of a god of healing, hoping to be cured of their ailments. The early stages of modern medicine began in these shrines, but some of the cures developed there, like eating the liver of a fox or drinking juice from an iris plant, had no connection with the cause of the diseases.

 

God, Prayer, Fasting, and Healing

The Bible tends to teach trust in God, prayer, and fasting as the way to be healed from illness, rather than trusting in human doctors or healers. The Bible is not always against doctors and medicine though, and biblical authors were not aware of modern scientific techniques. After all, Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul, was said to be a physician (Col 4.14). Also, modern medicine can be seen in light of the biblical command to love one's neighbor (Lev 19.18; Luke 10.25-37). In fact, Jesus instructed his followers to go heal the sick (Luke 10.9). The Bible also stresses the value and dignity of human life, teaching that all human beings are created by God and in God’s likeness (Gen 1.26,27). This belief has probably influenced the practice and ethics of modern medicine as well.

In conclusion, the Bible’s accounts of miracles, magic, and medicine are all stories about God’s power and love. They are not scientific explanations of supernatural events, but a faithful witness to the all-powerful nature of God, the Creator.