Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sticks and Stones may break my bones: The magical properties of words in antiquity

There is an old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me." Every child is taught this at some point while growing up. And they usually discover at some point that it is false. Words do hurt and sometimes they leave lasting scars.

The ancients were also aware of the power of words and they used them in magical practices, sometimes to inflict pain. Bible History Daily has a short piece this week on the power of words in ancient magic. What does this have to do with the Bible? Well this for one: 
In the Hebrew Bible there are clear indications that writing was often thought to have tangible, even magical, properties. In Numbers 5:11-28, a woman accused of adultery is made to consume “the water of bitterness,” a cloudy concoction infused with the washed-off ink from the words of a written curse. If the woman is innocent, the curse will have no effect; if she is guilty, the curse will cause her thighs to waste away and her belly to swell. In a similar vein, when Ezekiel accepts his prophetic mission from God during a dreamlike trance, he eats a scroll inscribed with the words of the divine message (Ezekiel 2:9-3:11). Having ingested the words, Ezekiel and God’s message become one.

The author goes on to explain.
The magical properties of writing meant that written words, once they came into being, were active and sometimes even unstable forces that could be manipulated, both for good and for ill. Numerous short dedicatory inscriptions found in Iron Age Israel and elsewhere make requests for divine blessing and protection,* many having only the author’s name, what is requested and the name of the deity. As Biblical scholar Susan Niditch has said, it is as if the act of writing the prayer “[brought] the God-presence into a sort of material reality,” thus allowing the words to become infused with “visceral power.”
The first line of the last quote sounds like what some modern preachers say about the "spoken word." But I won't name names here.

Read the full article here. 

HT: Jim Davila 

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