Animism in the Bible? Part 2 of 2

Posted: April 16, 2013 in Animism, Bible Study, Missions
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What is Animism?

Animism in the Bible? Part 1 of 2

There are a number of examples of animistic practice in the Old Testament, some of which are condemned. Philip Steyne refers to the idea of words having power in the stories of Balaam’s curse in Numbers 22-24 and the centurion who told Jesus to “just speak the word and my servant will be healed” in Matthew 8:8.[1] Isaiah condemns Israel’s practices of magic and witchcraft in Isaiah 47:9-15. The Israelites kept the bronze serpent on a pole from Numbers 21:1 and by the time Hezekiah cleaned out the temple in 2 Kings 18:4, it had become an object of worship, and the Jews burned incense to it. For many, the phylacteries from the Talmud, mentioned in Matthew 23:5, have become a ritual object of power that keep men from impure thoughts and give efficacy to their prayers ( – especially the blessings).

Two examples that look like animistic practices but aren’t necessarily are found in 1 Kings 5:10, when Naaman is told to dip in the Jordan seven times, and in Acts 19:12-16, when the handkerchiefs that Paul had touched are used to heal sick people. Animists would see Naaman’s ritual of cleansing as homeopathic magic that removed sickness, and Paul’s hankies as objects of power that removed magic by contagion.[2] The second example evokes images of modern television faith healers.

David seems to also view the ark of the covenant as an object of power, when he has it returned to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 13. The entire story surrounding the ark, which defeats and embarrasses Dagon, god of the Philistines, and brings blessing to the town of Kiriath-Jearim is one that is difficult to understand, without falling into our own animistic ideas of objects of power. An animist would also interpret the death of Uzziah, when he touched the ark on its way to Jerusalem, through the lenses of taboo, meaning that the object itself was untouchable.[3] Of course, the ark must have been touched multiple times both before and after – and not necessarily by ritually clean or chosen individuals. Uzziah was not killed because he broke taboo, but because he knowingly broke God’s rules, and usurped God’s place.

Simon the Sorcerer, in Acts 8, saw the Holy Spirit as a new source of power, and the laying on of hands as the ritual that conveyed that power. He was functioning logically from his own worldview, but when Peter corrects him harshly, he seems to realize his error, although he still looks to Peter as the “prayer specialist” or power broker. Again, reflection of Simon’s thinking can be seen in some branches of modern Christianity, where certain individuals are considered to have a “special anointing” that allows them to pray more efficaciously or dispense healing.

Finally, Numbers 5:11-33 shows an interesting ritual for discovering infidelity. A woman suspected of infidelity was given water mixed with dirt from the temple floor. If she was guilty, the water would cause great suffering, including making her infertile. If she was innocent, she would be fine. Philip Steyne compares this to animistic rituals, and indicates that a true animist would have no problem accepting such a ritual, although he would interpret the reasoning behind the ritual from a completely different perspective.[4] The Law, with its foundational rituals, could have been attractive for an animist. However, “while the Lord ordained the use of ritual in worship, He abhorred ritual that aimed at divine manipulation. The only actions that pleased God were those that arose from the heart (Hos 6:4–6), and true worship was to be accompanied by joy in the Lord (Dt 12:12, 18).[5]

Although there certainly are animistic practices in the Old Testament, most are condemned by God. The way some practices are understood to a great degree depends on the religio-philosophical lens used to interpret them. An animist understandingly sees an echo of the rituals he knows so well. Modern liberal scholars see the Hebrew religion as an amalgam of other pre-existing religious ideas – including animism. However, in the Old Testament, God consistently transcends nature. And “it is increasingly understood to-day that the former identifications in early Israel of a Mountain-God, a Fertility-God and a War-God, from which the ‘ethical monotheism’ of the prophets gradually evolved, are figments of scholarly presupposition and imagination.”[6] In other words, God Jahwe was wholly other from the very beginning and remains so today.

Next: Animism in Christianity

[1] Philip Steyne, Gods of Power, Columbia, SC: Impact International Foundation, 2005, p. 101.

[2] Ibid., p. 111-112

[3] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 139.

[4] Steyne, p. 133

[5] T. Cabal, C. O.  Brand, E. R. Clendenen, P. Copan, J. Moreland, & D. Powell, The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007, p. 126

[6] G. Ernest Wright, “The Old Testament and Paganism” International Review of Missions Volume 40, Issue 159,  July 1951, p. 270.

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