Superstitions and the first commandment

Looking towards Sunday, I read this in the Oxford Bible Commentary about the Exodus reading (Ex0dus 10: 1-17):

“Modern preachers interpret this [the first] command in a moralistic way: anything which absorbs a person’s devotion is his/her god … But this is not what it means in the OT context. It was not self-evident to people in OT times that there was only one God; the demand to worship only one God had to struggle against a polytheism which to many people seemed more natural, reflectign the complexity and unpredictability of the world.”  (OBC, OUP, 2001, p. 81)

I got to wondering how to translate this polytheism without simply moralizing, and then I got to wondering if we are really that far from a polytheistic way of thinking which seems “more natural, reflecting the complexity and unpredictability of the world” than faith that one almighty, all-loving God created, sustains and redeems us.

The online dictionary at defines “superstition” as

 a) belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or b) a false conception of causation an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.

fingers crossed this post doesn't bring me bad luck!

Leaving aside for a moment the slightly derogatory tones of the definition, I noticed that, put together, the two aspects of this definition came surprisingly close to describing a polytheistic belief map in which certain forces or gods were to be propitiated out of fear, and some to be courted to provoke magical good luck.

black cats are unlucky if you want to get work done

Do we really need to be reminded still to worship one God, and one God only, forsaking all others?
I posted on facebook a request for people’s “favourite” superstitions. The results could be divided roughly into three types:

1. Beliefs that portents or signs in nature tell us something about the way that the world is working. Examples include the “red sky at night” rhymes, which forecast the weather, and one from a friend and mentor, “a green Christmas means a full graveyard,” predicting the effects of a mild winter on the spread of viruses and other maladies. These are less superstitions than “folk wisdom,” with their basis in observation and extrapolation, they aim simply to inform and warn.

pretty sky in the morning = probably ok ...

seeing the bride/'s dress before the wedding = unlucky

2. Beliefs and practices that promote good luck, sometimes by capitalizing on good fortune already achieved, sometimes by buying luck: finding a four-leaf clover or picking up a penny; wearing inside-out pyjamas for a snow day; winning the wishbone, or throwing a coin in a wishing well. I don’t for the life of me know how getting bird poop on you ever became lucky!

3. Beliefs and practices that ward off evil or malign influence: avoiding certain numbers; holding breath when passing a graveyard to keep out ghosts; touching wood to avoid “tempting fate” when relating good news; avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement in case of breaking one’s mother’s back (or, in some rare cases, jumping on them!); throwing slipped salt over the left shoulder. Other evil portents – frogs in the house, magpies, black cats – simply bear witness to the malignancy of the powers that be that are already in effect.

There are also a few fond beliefs that, to my mind, seem to come out of common sense practice: if you walk under a ladder, you undertake a certain amount of risk that something/one will fall on you. And if you break a mirror, you will probably be picking up broken glass for at least seven years …

The fullest category, at least anecdotally, seems to be the third: warding off evil or malign influences. How far away really is that from an ancient practice of mollifying, courting or appeasing the polytheistic gods? Have we yet fully to trust that “the Lord your God” is the one, the true, the living God who holds all things in the hands that created them, and loves all that those hands have made?

It is bad luck to open an umbrella in the house. If it's a frog umbrella, you're probably doomed.

It is bad luck to open an umbrella in the house. If it's a frog umbrella, you're probably doomed

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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