The meaning of Amulet in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
am'-u-let (qemia, lechashim, mezuzah, tephillin, tsitsith; phulakterion): Modern scholars are of opinion that our English word amulet comes from the Latin amuletum, used by Pliny (Naturalis Historia, xxviii, 28; xxx, 2, etc.), and other Latin writers; but no etymology for the Latin word has been discovered. The present writer thinks the root exists in the Arabic himlat, "something carried" (see Dozy, Supplement aux Dictionnaires Arabes, I, 327), though there is no known example of the use of the Arabic word in a magical sense. Originally "amulet" denoted any object supposed to have the power of removing or warding noxious influences believed to be due to evil spirits, etc., such as the evil eye, etc. But in the common usage it stands for an object worn on the body, generally hung from the neck, as a remedy or preservative against evil influences of a mystic kind. The word "amulet" occurs once in the Revised Version (British and American) (Isaiah 3:20) but not at all in the King James Version.
1. Classes of Amulets:
The substances out of which amulets have been made and the forms which they have taken have been various.
(1) The commonest have consisted of Amulets of pieces of stone or metal, strips of parchment with or without inscriptions from sacred writings (Bible, Koran, etc.). The earliest Egyptian amulets known are pieces of green schist of various shapes—animal, etc. These were placed on the breast of a deceased person in order to secure a safe passage to the under-world. When a piece of stone is selected as an amulet it is always portable and generally of some striking figure or shape (the human face, etc.). The use of such a stone for this purpose is really a survival of animism.
(2) Gems, rings, etc. It has been largely held that all ornaments worn on the person were originally amulets. (3) Certain herbs and animal preparations; the roots of certain plants have been considered very potent as remedies and preservatives.
The practice of wearing amulets existed in the ancient world among all peoples, but especially among Orientals; and it can be traced among most modern nations, especially among peoples of backward civilization. Nor is it wholly absent from peoples of the most advanced civilization of today, the English, Americans, etc. Though the word charm (see CHARM) has a distinct meaning, it is often inseparably connected with amulets, for it is in many cases the incantation or charm inscribed on the amulet that gives the latter its significance. As distinguished from talisman (see TALISMAN) an amulet is believed to have negative results, as a means of protection: a talisman is thought to be the means of securing for the wearer some positive boon.
2. Amulets in the Bible:
Though there is no word in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures denoting "amulet," the thing itself is manifestly implied in many parts of the Bible. But it is remarkable that the general teaching of the Bible and especially that of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament writers is wholly and strongly opposed to such things.
(1) The Old Testament.
The golden ear-rings, worn by the wives and sons and daughters of the Israelites, out of which the molten calf was made (Exodus 32:2 f.), were undoubtedly amulets. What other function could they be made to serve in the simple life of the desert? That the women's ornaments condemned in Isaiah 3:16-26 were of the same character is made exceedingly likely by an examination of some of the terms employed. We read of moonlets and sunlets (verse 18), i.e. moon and sun-shaped amulets. The former in the shape of crescents are worn by Arab girls of our own time. The "ear-drops," "nose-rings," "arm chains" and "foot chains" were all used as a protection to the part of the body implied, and the strong words with which their employment is condemned are only intelligible if their function as counter charms is borne in mind. In Isaiah 3:20 we read of lechashim rendered "ear-rings" (the King James Version) and "amulets" (Revised Version (British and American)). The Hebrew word seems to be cognate with the word for "serpent" (nechashim; "l" and "r" often interchange), and meant probably in the first instance an amulet against a serpent bite (see Magic, Divination, and Demonology among the Hebrews and Their Neighbours, by the present writer, 50 f., 81; compare Jeremiah 8:7; Ecclesiastes 10:11; Psalms 58:5). Crescent-shaped amulets were worn by animals as well as human beings, as Judges 8:21, Judges 8:26 shows.
At Bethel, Jacob burned not only the idols ("strange gods") but also the ear-rings, the latter being as much opposed to Yahwism as the former, on account of their heathen origin and import.
In Proverbs 17:8 the Hebrew words rendered "a precious stone" (Hebrew "a stone conferring favor") mean without question a stone amulet treasured on account of its supposed magical efficacy. It is said in Proverbs 1:9 that wisdom will be such a defense to the one who has it as the head amulet is to the head and that of the neck to the neck. The words rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) "a chaplet of grace unto thy head" mean literally, "something bound to the head conferring favor," the one word for the latter clause being identical with that so rendered above (chen). The Talmudic word for an amulet (qemia') denotes something tied or bound (to the person).
We have reference to the custom of wearing amulets in Proverbs 6:21 where the reader is urged to "bind them (i.e. the admonitions of father and mother) .... upon thy heart" and to "tie them about thy neck"—words implying a condemnation of the practice of trusting to the defense of mere material objects.
Underneath the garments of warriors slain in the Maccabean wars amulets were found in the shape apparently of idols worshipped by their neighbors (2 Macc 12:40). It is strange but true that like other nations of antiquity the Jews attached more importance to amulets obtained from other nations than to those of native growth. It is probable that the signet ring referred to in Song of Solomon 8:6; Jeremiah 22:24; Haggai 2:23 was an amulet. It was worn on the heart or on the arm.
(2) The Phylacteries and the Mezuzah.
There is no distract reference to these in the Old Testament. The Hebrew technical term for the former (tephillin) does not occur in Biblical. Hebrew, and although the Hebrew word mezuzah does occur over a dozen times its sense is invariably "door-(or "gate-") post" and not the amulet put on the door-post which in later Hebrew the word denotes.
It is quite certain that the practice of wearing phylacteries has no Biblical support, for a correct exegesis and a proper understanding of the context put it beyond dispute that the words in Exodus 13:9, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8 f.; Deuteronomy 11:18-20 have reference to the exhortations in the foregoing verses: "Thou shalt bind them (the commands previously mentioned) for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontiers between thy eyes. And thou shalt write them upon, the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates" (Deuteronomy 6:8 f.). The only possible sense of these words is that they were to hold the precepts referred to before their minds constantly as if they were inscribed on their arms, held in front of their eyes, and written on the door-posts or gate-posts which they daily passed. That the language in Exodus 13:9, Exodus 13:16 does not command the use of phylacteries is obvious, and that the same is true of Proverbs 3:3; Proverbs 6:21; Proverbs 7:3 where similar words are used is still more certain. Yet, though none of the passages enjoin the use of phylacteries or of the mezuzah, they may all contain allusions to both practices as if the sense were, "Thou shalt keep constantly before thee my words and look to them for safety and not to the phylacteries worn on head and arm by the heathen." If, however, phylacteries were in use among the Jews thus early, it is strange that there is not in the Old Testament a single instance in which the practice of wearing phylacteries is mentioned. Josephus, however, seems to refer to this practice (Ant., IV, viii, 13), and it is frequently spoken of in the Mishna (Berakhoth, i, etc.). It is a striking and significant fact that the Apocrypha is wholly silent as to the three signs of Judaism, phylacteries, the mezuzah and the tsitsith (or tassel attached to the corner of the prayer garment called Tallith; compare Matthew 9:20; Matthew 14:36 the King James Version where "hem of the garment" is inaccurate and misleading).
It is quite evident that phylacteries have a magical origin. This is suggested by the Greek name phulakterion (whence the English name) which in the 1st century of our era denoted a counter charm or defense (phulasso, "to protect") against evil influences. No scholar now explains the Greek word as denoting a means of leading people to keep (phulasso) the law. The Hebrew name tephillin (= "prayers") meets us first in post-Bib. Hebrew, and carries with it the later view that phylacteries are used during prayer in harmony with the prayers or other formulas over the amulet to make it effective (see Budge, Egyptian Magic, 27).
See more fully under CHARM.
In addition to the literature given in the course of the foregoing article, the following may be mentioned. On the general subject see the great works of Tyler (Early History of Mankind, Primitive Culture) and Frazer, Golden Bough; also the series of articles under "Charms and Amulets" in Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics and the excellent article "Amulet" in the corresponding German work, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. See further the article "Amulet" in Jewish Encyclopedia, and on Egyptian amulets, Budge, Egyptian Magic, 25 ff.
T. Witton Davies
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