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Grown-Up Bible Stories

Bigger than Magic

He was only a prisoner. Well actually, it was worse than that. He was a slave whose master unfairly suspected him of trying to get too involved with his wife. His master, a high government official, controlled the prison. As a foreign slave from a tiny nation-clan, he couldn't expect much help. He might face more years than he cared to count on the chain gang. He may even have wondered about facing an executioner.

Yet, there was something exceptional about this particular slave-turned prisoner. For one thing, everything he touched seemed to turn a profit; although, as a slave he didn’t get the wealth personally. This uncanny ability had once made him his master’s personal business manager. Now it made him foreman of hard labor in the prison. His ability was unusual. Actually, what we know from today’s perspective assures us that his ability included a supernatural element.

Nor was this particular man’s supernatural ability limited to work and business. He also seemed to have unusual contact with a mysterious God. Back in his nomadic clan, that God had hardly seemed strange. The Hebrews worshiped an unseen deity, who at this point they referred to as God Almighty. Later, He would further reveal Himself as Jehovah—or Yahweh. Today, we typically just call Him God. This God was invisible. He required a strict morality of those who worshiped Him, yet He forgave them for some ugly failures. He occasionally revealed Himself through a dream or other vision. The Hebrews recorded these revelations and passed them on to their children. While God wasn’t completely unknown outside the tents of this nomadic tribe, they seemed to have a handle on His revelations. They also claimed a special relationship with Him.

Joseph, as the prisoner was called, had experienced God-given dreams as a youth. Those dreams had suggested a prominent role in his clan. His brothers found themselves jealous of this claim and of the special place he held in their father’s heart. Not so careful about the moral code worshipers of God were supposed to adhere to, they sold him as a slave to a passing caravan. Then they lied to their father about finding his bloody clothing in the wilderness.

Now he was a slave in Egypt--a slave imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He was a man with no future. He was also a man with a strong sense of an invisible God, a God the Egyptians saw as but one of many.

It wasn't that the Egyptians were uninterested in religion and spirituality. They worshiped multiple deities. While Joseph’s God refused to recognize the spirits behind the Egyptians' idols as gods, there was enough spiritual power available to keep the populace worshiping. In fact, the spiritual power, the magic as it is sometimes called, was strong enough that even the national ruler, the Pharaoh, depended on magicians and astrologers to guide his decision making.

The Pharaoh naturally possessed much power, especially with regard to his servants. Hence when the royal butler and royal baker proved too irritating, his majesty sent them off to prison. Now they were on the work detail, serving under a foreign slave.

One night, both new prisoners dreamed. Like many ancient people, their belief in magic tended to suggest significance for their dreams. While all people have dreamed in all times, an ancient tended to expect the voices of the spirit world in his dreams. These men woke up in prison and pondered who was trying to tell them what.

Joseph, a man whose faith survived his own unfulfilled dreams, recognized worry on their faces and asked what was wrong. When he found they were struggling to understand their dreams, Joseph suggested his God knew all about dreams. Why didn’t they tell him what they’d dreamed? He’d go to God and see what he could find out.

The men complied. Joseph quickly told them what God was saying. The butler was going to get out of jail and return to his royal job. The baker would be executed. Great news for the butler. Not so great for the baker. Joseph added a plea to the butler, “When you get back to the king, please put in a good word for me. I was kidnapped from my homeland, and I’m not guilty of the crime I’m in prison for.” [Quotations are not exact unless accompanied by a reference.]

The dreams turned out as Joseph prophesied. The baker died. The butler went back to the palace.

Sadly, the butler forgot the man who'd understood his dream.

Eventually, the Pharaoh himself experienced a troubling dream, two of them to be precise. He didn’t feel the need to turn to an unknown prisoner. He called in the best magicians, but they proved helpless. A dream of skinny, sick cows eating healthy cows meant nothing to them. A dream of scrawny heads of grain eating healthy heads of grain meant nothing to them. But Pharaoh still thought his dream was from the spirit world. He remained troubled.

Then the butler remembered. Pharaoh sent to the prison for Joseph.

Joseph made no claims of magic power. He openly stated he couldn’t read dreams on his own. The Spirit behind the dreams was really his God, and God Himself would clarify what He'd said last night.

Joseph then explained how God was trying to warn Pharaoh of an economic and social disaster about to fall upon his nation. A famine, probably caused by crop failure, would strike Egypt for seven years. The seven years before the famine allowed enough time to store enough food to avoid mass starvation. Joseph suggested an able manager be put in place to establish a national food bank before disaster struck.

In the end, God’s care for Joseph went beyond the ability to deal in dreams. He was the man chosen to establish the food bank. Pharaoh freed him from prison and placed him in high political office. His supernatural business ability made the plan succeed. His predictions proved accurate. Joseph's work saved the day, not only for Egypt, but for a number of foreigners as well. The magic the Egyptians trusted in couldn’t handle reality. God could.

Hundreds of years later, another Hebrew found himself a successful prisoner in a foreign land. By then, Joseph’s family/clan had developed into two full-fledged nations, Israel and Judah. Judah had been conquered by the Chaldeans who exploited it to the point of ruin. Those of the nobility who survived traveled as prisoners of war to the Chaldean capital, Babylon. Here, some of them went into training for government service under the great Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar. As an empire builder, Nebuchadnezzar would have had noble youth of several nations training and serving in his court. In keeping with ongoing ancient spiritual beliefs, he also kept a full staff of magicians, fortunetellers, and astrologers busy. Nebuchadnezzar answered to no man, but he still wanted the best advice available when it came to his empire. Political trainees like Daniel and spiritual men like the magicians were all part of the best government an ancient dictator could create.

Daniel might have been a government official in training, but he wasn’t a free man. He had to conform to his captor’s wishes if he wanted to keep his position. Actually, more than his position was at stake—so was his life. Nebuchadnezzar, as wise as he tried to be, remained very brutal.

In this setting, Daniel had distinguished himself as a servant of God. He didn’t worship the spirits those around him believed were the gods their idols portrayed. He didn’t follow court practices that went against his religion. Daniel was faithful to God. Even in that spiritually charged setting of death and oppression, he did what God required. God saw that he survived.

Like his national hero, Joseph, Daniel also found himself in possession of unusual abilities. Joseph had been a spiritually empowered manager. Daniel was a spiritually empowered intellectual. He finished his political training program with a test, or perhaps even a battery of tests. He and the three friends who had followed his loyalty to God set the record for test scores. Of the future political leaders in exile, they proved the best and the brightest. They did so by following their God rather than the mystical ways of the Chaldeans.

Eventually, the royal dream thing cropped up again. The wisdom of the magical world found itself back in competition with the wisdom of God.

Nebuchadnezzar went about things a bit differently than the Pharaoh. He didn’t ask his magicians to explain his dream. He demanded they tell him what he'd dreamed and then explain what the dream meant. For incentive, he decreed failure would mean the death penalty for the whole corps of royal advisers.

The helpless magicians pleaded that no king on earth expected men of their class to tell him what he had dreamed. An interpretation they were willing to risk. They had their magic formulas, their mystical secrets, and likely a flair for theatrics. They could either come up with an explanation that worked, or they could at least give an explanation that would satisfy the king long enough to save their lives. Using their dark spirituality to tell what dreams meant was part of their trade. Recreating the dream itself from scratch was a whole different matter.

Daniel did not practice magic or witchcraft. These things didn't belong in the life of a worshiper of God. Daniel hadn’t been part of the magician's interview with Nebuchadnezzar, but the technical differences in a Chaldean magician and a Hebrew wise man were lost on the king. Daniel and his Hebrew friends faced the death sentence with the rest.

Daniel had the same Power behind him that Joseph had claimed so many years before. With his life and the lives of his coworkers in the balance, he prayed to God.

In the night Daniel, who was either asleep or in a trance, saw a large statue. Its head was made of gold, its chest of silver, its waist of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet an unstable mixture of iron and clay. A huge stone crashed into the feet of the statue and destroyed it. Daniel woke up, realizing he’d just seen the king’s dream. He also recognized God's hand in showing him and his Hebrew friends what the dream meant.

Daniel went before Nebuchadnezzar. He pointed out that the magicians couldn’t tell the king his dream. The king's sources of spiritual guidance were sadly lacking. Daniel stated there was a real God in Heaven. That God had given the king a dream to tell him the future. Daniel recounted the dream. Then, he proceeded to explain how the dream represented the major political movements in the future of Middle Eastern and even Western history. Of course, Nebuchadnezzar’s wise and powerful reign began the process with the head of gold. Successive empires, some stronger but none as glorious, would follow until the empire would fade into elements that wouldn’t stick together. In those far-future days, God Himself would establish a kingdom and rule the world the way it should be ruled.

Nebuchadnezzar didn’t do so well with God in the long run, but Daniel had established himself as God’s spokesman. He also saved the lives of the magicians, astrologers, and fortunetellers. Ironically, Daniel, who would have absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual forces they worshiped, came to be considered their chief. Perhaps the title was inevitable. His God made their higher powers look rather low.

About 500 years later, the magic of the ancient world and the God of Joseph and Daniel collided again. Judah had recovered from Chaldean domination. It didn't quite regain its earlier independent status, but as history worked its way through the empires of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the worshipers of God managed to keep their national identity and a certain level of self-government. Yes, there had been turmoil, war, and disaster, but the Hebrew nation survived.

Now, in the fourth stage of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the Roman Empire controlled the Western and Middle Eastern worlds. Rome was semi-democratic, so its emperors lacked Nebuchadnezzar's total power. Still, the power they held was impressive. (They’d been portrayed as the iron legs of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.) Rome ruled Judah through a Roman appointed king, Herod the Great. Herod was far from the imperial power of Nebuchadnezzar or even Caesar Augustus, but he was a force to be reckoned with in the Palestine of his day. What he lacked in status he made up for in brutality. Even his wife and children faced the executioner’s sword when he imagined them threats to his power. In spite of the dangers of life at court, the average Judean lived peacefully.

Naturally, the former land of the Chaldeans had seen its share of changes too. Overrun first by the Medes and Persians, then Alexander the Great and his Greek forces, the region had suffered as had Judah from the wars that followed Alexander’s death. Under the Romans, it now experienced the famed Pax Romana, the Roman Peace which killed everyone who seriously disturbed the peace but ultimately made life better for those who didn’t.

Like the Chaldeans, the Romans looked to the stars and the spirit world for guidance, but their government seems to have been more secular than Nebuchadnezzar’s. Rome was beginning the move from magic to science. Science or none, the world controlled by Rome still depended heavily on magic.

Back in the general area of the old Chaldean empire, a small group of astrologer/magician types saw an unusual star. Like so many of their forbears, they read a spiritual message in that star.

Only, this time the situation was different. Previously, the magicians had tried to get their spiritual guidance from the evil spirits they worshiped. This effort often failed. This time, the real God, the God of Joseph and Daniel, was speaking to the magic community directly through a star. Their traditions, possibly influenced by Daniel’s memory, recognized a coming king for the Hebrew nation. This star was His star. Whatever religious traditions they’d held in competition with the worship of God, they recognized more than just a foreign king in this birth announcement. They recognized One so attached to God that they made a dangerous and difficult journey to worship Him.

We know little of these magicians or their travels. We traditionally describe them as three men of royal descent riding across the desert on camels. As a tradition it’s nice, but historically, all we know is that there were more than one of them, they were of the magician/astrologer class, and they came from the East with expensive gifts to give to the Heaven-proclaimed King.

We also know they tried to find this infant king in Herod’s palace. Herod, forever worried about his ability to maintain office, didn’t like the idea of a possible competitor. He consulted the spiritual experts of the Jewish religion. They told him the ancient prophets predicted the special King would be born in the Judean village of Bethlehem.

From the annual review of the infant King’s history at Christmas, most of us know how Herod tried to trick the foreign magicians into leading him to the Baby they sought. We also know the God they’d barely met through a star gave them a dream that guided them out of town and left Herod in the dark.

But let’s focus for just a moment on the object of their search. These foreign magicians represented the best of the ancient world’s spiritual expertise. They knew about the spirit world. They strove to understand how that spirit world interfaced with the natural world. They studied the spiritual significance of dreams perhaps, definitely stars. They had a long history of ancient magical art—and in a sense, magical science—behind them.

Yet, it wasn’t the magic of their ancestors that brought them to worship before Jesus Christ. A direct revelation from God penetrated their magical mindset and brought them to Bethlehem.

In Bethlehem, they didn’t find a mere Jewish king, as wonderful as that would have been. They found the child that was God Himself, come down not in some magical formula, but in the very real, very physical body of Jesus Christ. For in Jesus, God became man. The only Spirit worthy of the name God had entered the world in such a way that He could be seen and known. The scary spiritual forces of the magicians found no place in the face of that harmless baby. The vain efforts to master the spiritual world that failed nervous kings were forever laid to rest in the person of this newborn King. There would be no more need to deal with lesser spirits in a bumbling search for God. God had become human. He had penetrated the magically attuned world with a message designed to guide and save it. Only, this time, He had come into the world and met the representatives of magic directly and in person. Jesus Christ, as He lay in the manger, Jesus Christ as He lived a sinless life, Jesus Christ as He performed miracles that exposed magic as the helpless little art that it is, Jesus Christ as He died and rose from the dead, Jesus Christ as He proclaimed that all authority in Heaven and earth is given to Him, proved forever that the power of God is much greater than all the magic the world has ever known.

Unlike magic, the power of God as found through Jesus Christ also brings forgiveness, peace, joy, and eternal life. Have you found God’s power in your life?

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (Matthew 4:10)

This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. (1 John 4:1-4)

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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