Of all the occupations in the Bible, probably the one viewed with the most disdain is “magician. “ (“Banker” comes a close second.) Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus 7 fail miserably to produce plagues like Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh’s magicians in Genesis 41 can’t begin to interpret dreams like Joseph. Not only are magicians incompetent, they’re crooked: Simon Magus of Acts 8 correctly converts to Christianity but then tries to buy the ability to lay hands on called apostles; for that, his is the name forever given to the grave sin of “simony.” The Magi in Matthew 2 are heroes of course, but most of the time “magi” are lumped with murderers, sexual predators and idolaters; hence, liable to stoning.
Now before you pick up the phone to faithfully and immediately cancel the scintillating magician booked for your child’s next birthday party, please know he/she is not what the biblical ancients referred to. Magicians of old were believed to be all about conjuring the powers of evil in order to undercut God’s power of good.
However, I would say that much of what we love about contemporary magic acts can actually be found spicing up the work of biblical heroes, making their miraculous work that much more entertaining.
For example, there is Elijah and the way he dramatically shows up 450 Canaanite priests in 1 Kings 18. The Israelites have begun praying to Baal (the Canaanite main god) to end a terrible draught. Elijah sets up a contest wherein both he and the Canaanite priests are to slaughter a bull and place it on their respective altars. After their respective prayers, which G(g)od would show H(h)e is real and hence able to respond by setting fire to H(h)is own sacrifice?
First to go are the 450 Baal priests who endlessly pray and moan and limp around their large altar, cutting themselves so their blood will hopefully bring action, but to no avail. The bull meat just sits there, undoubtedly attracting flies.
Elijah then gets to work, not unlike a headliner in Vegas. He takes but twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel to make a simple altar, (like a magician about to show what he can do with a cup of water or a coin), and he places the meat upon it for God to set afire from the heavens (drum roll please). But wait! Like a great entertainer who wants to draw out the suspense as well as heighten the spectacle and substantially increase awe by proving he has nothing up his sleeve, Elijah asks that four jars of water be placed on the meat and the wood set around it for burning. Then he asks this to be done a second time. And a third! (You can hear the audience gasp.) He then has a large trench dug around the altar and has it filled with water three times as well. (Double gasp). Drum roll starts again as he offers God but a two-sentence petition and presto change-o the top of the altar and the trench around it are fully consumed in fire. Ta da!
What happens next you don’t see in Vegas, nor do you want to – Elijah orders all 450 Canaanite priests to be seized and taken to a nearby valley so he can kill them. (However, I believe, this falls into the category of “ridiculous violence” that is an earmark of comedy, especially as it is as fanciful as the rest of this tale whose intention is to playfully remind the later generations of Israelites there is but one Deity capable of responding to prayer even as the powers that be may tout the efficacy of some idol or other.)
We see similar theatrics in the ministry of Jesus (minus the priest slaughter). His miracle work was anything but boring (and it’s a pity when pretty much presented as such….).
For example, there is the raising of His good friend Lazarus from the dead in John 11. When word comes that Lazarus is dying, instead of quickly running to heal him, Jesus decides, not unlike Elijah, to add suspense, heighten spectacle and increase awe that there is nothing up His sleeve, either. Jesus proclaims for all to hear that it is good that Lazarus is sick! The Messiah will sit things out for the best demonstration of God’s glory. No one can understand or believe what Jesus is doing (not unlike your normal befuddled Saturday night Magic Castle audience), and, finally, after not just one, not just two, but three whole days of waiting – OMG what a payoff we’re in for – Jesus stands before Lazarus' opened tomb, now quite smelly (not unlike David Blaine’s decomposed skin after remaining submerged in water without breathing for almost 8 minutes). He calls Lazarus to come forth and have his bindings unwrapped (not unlike the assistance David Copperfield seeks after he saws himself in half). Amazement, of course, abounds back there in ancient Bethany (as should lots of applause and curtain calls, don’t you think???)!!!
Through the comic lens, the “Raising of Lazarus” becomes a playful tale, with Jesus pursuing this final miraculous sign with the sparkling panache of a Penn or Teller (the ultra-non-atheist version, of course).
This leads one to wonder about those three days between Jesus death and resurrection, too. What if they’re not to be understood as three days of mourning and dread but rather the effectively dramatic period both Jesus and God want to take (not one, not two, but three whole days of waiting!) to make sure the greatest feat of all time – rising from the cross into eternity – is experienced at its most spectacular…and so no force in heaven or on earth may suspect there is anything up anyone’s sleeve. This is God’s showstopper and God’s alone. Ta da!