4-2 Demons And Idols

Demons Refer To Idols

In 1 Corinthians Paul explains why Christians should have nothing to do with idol worship or believing in such things. In Bible times people believed demons to be lesser gods who could be worshipped to stop problems coming into their lives. They therefore made models of demons, which were the same as idols, and worshipped them. This explains why Paul uses the words “demon” and “idol” almost interchangeably in his letter: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons...if anyone says to you, ‘This was offered to idols,’ do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you...” (1 Cor. 10:20,28). So idols and demons are effectively the same. Notice how Paul says they sacrificed “to demons (idols) and not to God” - the demons were not God, and as there is only one God, it follows that demons have no real power at all, they are not gods. The point is really driven home in 1 Cor. 8:4: “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol (equivalent to a demon) is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one”. An idol, or a demon, has no existence at all. There is only one true God, or power, in the world. Paul goes on (:5,6): “For even if there are so- called gods...(as there are many gods and many lords, [just as people believe in many types of demons today - one demon causing you to lose your job, another causing your wife to leave you, etc.]) yet for us [the true believers] there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things [both good and bad, as we have seen from the earlier references]”. Gal. 4:8,9 says the same thing when translated properly. Paul challenges the Galatians: "You who were enslaved to those who were not really gods... How can you turn back again to those weak and beggarly spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?" (Gal. 4:8,9). Here he parallels demonic spirits with 'gods who are not really gods'. But note how Paul argues [under Divine inspiration]- "even if there are" such demons / idols... for us there is to be only one God whom we fear and worship. This in fact is a continuation of the Psalmists' attitude. Time and again the gods / idols of the pagan nations are addressed as if they exist, but are ordered to bow down in shame before Yahweh of Israel (Ps. 29:1,2,10; 97:7). Whether they exist or not becomes irrelevant before the fact that they are powerless before the one true God- and therefore it is He whom we should fear, trusting that He alone engages with our lives for our eternal good in the end. "Yahweh is a great King above all gods" (Ps. 95:3) shows the Divine style- rather than overly stressing that the gods / idols / demons don't exist, the one true God isn't so primitive. Neither were the authors and singers of Psalm 95. The greatness of His Kingship is what's focused upon- not the demerits and non-existence of other gods. To do so would be altogether too primitive for the one true God. And likewise with the Lord's miracles- God's gracious power to save was demonstrated, this was where the focus was; and its very magnitude shows the relative non-existence of 'demons'.

Further proof that people in New Testament times believed demons to be idols or ‘gods’ is found in Acts 17:16-18; this describes how Paul preached in Athens, which was a “city given over to idols”, therefore worshipping many different idols. After hearing Paul preach the Gospel, the people said: “’He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign (i.e. new) gods (demons)’ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection”. So the people thought that Jesus and the resurrection were new demons or idols that were being explained to them. Paul goes on to teach the truth to these people, and in v. 22 he says: “You are very religious” (literally: devoted to demon worship). He explains how God is not present in their demons, or idols. Remember that God is the only source of power. If He is not in demons, then demons do not have any power because there is no other source of power in this universe - i.e. they do not exist.

Old Testament Demons Were Idols

Going back to the Old Testament, there is more proof that ‘demons’ are the same as idols. “They sacrificed to demons, not to God ...” (Dt. 32:17, cp. Ps. 106:37). Dt. 28:14-28,59-61 predicted that mental disease would be one of the punishments for worshipping other gods/demons. This explains the association of demons with mental illness in the New Testament. But let it be noted that the language of demons is associated with illness, not sin. We do not read of Christ casting out demons of envy, murder etc. It must also be noted that the Bible speaks of people having a demon/disease, rather than saying that demons caused the disease. It is significant that the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) used the word ‘daimonion’ for “idol”; this is the word translated “demon” in the New Testament. "Idols" in Ps. 96:5 is translated "demons" in the Septuagint; and the Septuagint uses the same word in Is. 65:11 to describe Gad, the Syrian god / idol of fortune. Ps. 106:36-39 describes the errors of Israel and likens the idols of Canaan to demons: “They (Israel) served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan... Thus they were defiled by their own works, and played the harlot by their own deeds”.

Quite clearly demons are just another name for idols. Israel's worship of demons is described by God as worshipping their “own works... their own deeds” because their belief in demons was a result of human imagination; the idols they created were their “own works”. So those who believe in demons today are believing in things which have been imagined by men, the creation of men, rather than what God has taught us. The word used for idols literally means ‘no-things’, stressing that they have no existence in the real world, only in the minds of people who believe in them.

Dt. 32:15-24 describes just how angry God gets when His people believe in demons: Israel “scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they did not know, ... that your fathers did not fear ... And He (God) said: ‘I will hide My face from them...for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faith. They have provoked Me to jealousy by what  is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols... I will heap disasters upon them”. Is. 65:3 LXX is just as clear: "[Israel] burn incense on bricks to demons, which exist not". The idols of the nations, representing as they did the supposed 'demons' of the cosmos, were "vanity" because what the demons and gods they supposedly represented did not exist- they are "beings that are nothing" (1 Sam. 12:21 LXX), "a thing of nought" (Jer. 14:4).

So God describes demons as the same as foolish idols, abominations- things which are folly to believe in, which have no existence. Believing in demons shows a lack of faith in the one and only God. To put this more theologically. Paul Martinson comments upon 1 Cor. 10:19-21: "I take 'demons' to be a functional term and not substantive [i.e. referring to actual beings]. After all, Paul already denied the idols substantially ("nothing")" (1). To put it again more simply, translating from academe to lay English: If demons are another way of speaking about idols, and idols are nothing, they don't really exist, they're just hunks of wood and stone- then, demons don't exist. But all the same, there is an appropriate culture used by the Almighty in this matter.


(1) Paul Martinson, "People other than Christians pray", in Paul Sponheim, ed., A Primer On Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).


4-2-1 Canaanite Theology Smashed

An analysis of the surrounding religious beliefs of the early Canaanite tribes at the time of the Exodus indicates that the one true God chose to reveal Himself in language which clearly alluded to the surrounding theological ideas. It has been shown that ‘El’ was the name of the most powerful Canaanite god in the plurality of deities which the Canaanites worshipped (1). The characteristics of Yahweh God of Israel are almost identical to the language of the day used to describe the Canaanite deity ‘El’ (2). For example, ‘El’ married the prostitute Asarte, as Yahweh married the prostitute Israel (Hos. 3:1); and most noteworthy of all ‘El’ sacrificed his own son (3). Significantly, ‘El’ is one of the titles which God uses for Himself in His word. Arthur Gibson points out that the name ‘Yahweh’ has similarities with the Amorite god Ya-Wi, and the Ugarit god Yahaninu (4). So here is clear evidence that God reveals Himself in the language of the day in order to demonstrate, by the very fact of His evident superiority, that these other deities to whom He alludes did not exist; Yahweh was the true ‘El’. Those gods with similar names were nothing compared to the true Yahweh El.

Martin Buber, one of academic Judaism's finest minds, coined the term "Yahweh's demonism" (5). He perceived in, e.g., the record of the Angel meeting Moses at night, seeking to slay him and then 'letting him go', all the language which was typically applied to demons- meeting and seeking to slay a man of God (Ex. 4:24). But the point is, it is not a demon who did this, but a righteous Angel of God, to the extent that it was possible for the record to state that it was Yahweh who sought to slay Moses, and yet changed His purpose because of Moses' repentance and the intercession of a woman. Buber's point was that the text is an allusion to the local beliefs about demons, but the Biblical record deconstructs these beliefs by showing that it is Yahweh and His Angels responsible for those situations which pagans would otherwise attribute to supposed 'demons'. Other examples include how the bull cherubim were understood in the surrounding cultures as the abode or throne of a demon; but it is Yahweh who is enthroned upon the bull cherubim; or how the record of Balaam would've lead the contemporary hearers to expect him to receive inspiration from a demon- but instead the inspiration comes from Yahweh, and is against those who believed in demons and pagan gods. Paul Volz took the idea further when he observed that in the early Old Testament passages where Yahweh is portrayed as doing the things expected of demons, He has "absorbed everything demonic... so that no demons were required any more in Israel" (6). And so there are no further associations of Yahweh with demons / idols but rather an overt mocking of their existence in the later Old Testament. Something similar happens in the New Testament. Initially, the Lord Jesus is presented as dealing with and overcoming real demons; but His miracles are so powerful that it becomes evident that they effectively don't exist, and the later New Testament exalts in the supremacy of God over the demons / idols which in fact are non-existent.

Karl Barth in his roundabout and theological way came to the same conclusion: "God is superior to all other powers. These other powers... appear to be genuinely real. God is not in the series of these worldly powers, perhaps as the highest of them; but He is superior to all other powers, neither limited nor conditioned by them, but He is the Lord of all lords, the King of all kings. So that all these powers, which as such are indeed powers, are a priori laid at the feet of the power of God. In relation to Him they are not powers in rivalry with Him" (7).

Elijah And Elisha

This manner of demolishing the claims of surrounding pagan beliefs in idols and demons is common in the Old Testament. Thus the record in 1 Kings 18 sets up a contest for credibility between Baal, the god of storm and rain, and Yahweh God of Israel. It is evident that Baal did not exist; the onlookers were utterly convinced by the extent of the miracle that “Yahweh, Yahweh, He is the God”.

2 Kings 2:19 (AV mg.) records how the people complained that “the water is naught, and that ground causing to miscarry”. This was evidently an incorrect superstition of the time; barren ground cannot make the women who live on it barren. But Elisha does not blow them into next week for believing such nonsense. Instead he performed the miracle of curing the barrenness of the land. The record says that there was no more barrenness of the land or women “according to the saying of Elisha which he spake”. Normally the people would have recoursed to wizards to drive away the relevant demon which they thought was causing the problem. But the miracle made it evident that ultimately God had caused the problem, and He could so easily cure it. This was a far more effective way of sinking the people’s foolish superstition than a head-on frontal attack upon it.

Lucifer Likewise…

We keep one of the best examples until last. Isaiah 14:12-15 describes how ‘Lucifer’, the king of Babylon, wants to ascend up above the heavens and usurp Yahweh’s throne. This is actually quoting from a Ugaritic legend concerning the god Attr (the Hebrew for ‘Lucifer’ is the equivalent of this) (8). Attr wanted to become the head of the gods, and he succeeded – in surrounding mythology. Isaiah 14 quotes this part of the legend, but shows how he would be cast down to the earth by Yahweh, to the lowest pit. This clearly establishes that the Bible uses allusion to the false ideas of the surrounding world in order to bring home the extent of God’s power and therefore the non-existence of idols/demons.

The Old Testament way of deconstructing pagan ideas carried over into the New Testament. For example, it has been shown by many students that the Gospel and epistles of John are shot through with allusion to the language of surrounding Gnostic philosophy in order to show the infinite superiority of the true Gospel over the vain philosophy of the first century world in which John’s Gospel was first inspired (9). This is a New Testament example of what was done throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.

The Law Of Moses

We could say that the whole concept of 'demons' is not only deconstructed in the Old Testament; it is positively subverted. By this I mean that terms appropriate to demons are picked up and used and yet through this not only their non-existence but also the power of the one God is demonstrated. Thus the golden bells on the High Priest's garments (Ex. 28:33) were familiar in local religions as charm to ward off demons by their noise (10). But they are used in the Divine scheme of things to remind of God's holiness and the danger of human sin impinging upon this and thus leading to death. And thereby fear of demons was to be replaced by fear of God's holiness and human sin. Likewise the plate or rosette on the High Priest's turban would've recalled pagan plates which warded off supposed demons; but this one spoke of "Holiness to Yahweh", again replacing the negative with the positive (11). Ornaments / amulets were worn at the time in order to fend off evil spirits; the way Moses records how at least twice Israel threw them away could be understood as a hint that they needed no defence against demons, because of God's Almightiness (Gen. 35:4; Ex. 32:24). Or again, incense smoke was supposed to drive away demons (12); but the image is used to represent prayer and Yahweh's glory (Lev. 16:3,13; Rev. 5:8).



(1) J.C.L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978).

(2) J.Gray The Legacy Of Canaan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1957); see too F.M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).

(3) This is mentioned by Werner Keller, The Bible As History (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957 ed.) p. 261.

(4) Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1981) pp. 35,137.

(5) Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1949) p. 47; also see his On The Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1982) p. 72.

(6) Paul Volz, Das Dämonische in Jahwe (Tübingen, 1924) as quoted in Martin Buber, Moses (Oxford: The Phaidon Press, 1947) p. 57.

(7) Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 47.

(8) The correspondence is remarkable. A tablet was found at Ras Shamra in 1929 bearing this mythical legend, and including the very words which Isaiah 14 quotes. It is Ugarit Text no. UM129. See C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (Rome: P.I.B., 1955).

(9) For example, John Carter, The Gospel of John (Birmingham: C.M.P.A., 1943). C.H. Dodd demonstrates that phrases in John’s letters like “We are in the light”, “We know God”, “We dwell in God” etc. are all Gnostic phrases; what John is saying is that we, the true believers, are in this position on account of knowing the true Gospel. Thus the Spirit is alluding to the false claims of the surrounding world and showing that the power of the Spirit exposed these claims as false. See C.H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1953).

(10) R.E. Clements, Exodus (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1972) p. 182.

(11) Clements, ibid..

(12) Clements, ibid p. 192.


4-2-2 Case Study: Resheph

I now want to bring together much of what I've been saying by considering a widely believed in demon called Resheph. He is mentioned by name in documents found in such widely separated places as Mari, Ugarit, Egypt, Cyprus and Carthage. This indicates the popularity of belief in him amongst Israel’s neighbours - neighbours who constantly tempted Israel to accept their beliefs, hence God’s allusion to Resheph in the prophets. He was thought to be responsible for plague and violent death. A dictionary defines him as: “Probably a War God. Lord of the Arrow. Has gazelle horns on his helmet. He destroys men in mass by war and plague. He is the porter of the sun Goddess Shepesh (this seems to resemble Khamael of the Hebrews). He is also called Mekal (Annihilator), and could be related to the Hebrew Michael (Mikal) who is also a War God (ArchAngel)”. He was thus set up as the pagan demonic equivalent to Michael, the Angel that stood for Israel (Dan. 12:1). This demon was widely believed in throughout the nations surrounding Israel (1). So common was this belief that we might expect a specific denunciation of his existence from Yahweh. But not so. We read of Resheph in the Hebrew text of the Bible; and always Yahweh is demonstrating that what Resheph is supposed to do, actually He is responsible for. The miracles of plague and destruction wrought by Yahweh at the Exodus would have been attributable by the surrounding nations to the demon Resheph; in their eyes, such things were exactly his calling card. But the Biblical record is at pains to emphasize that the nations were brought to realize that Yahweh God of Israel had done these things, they came to fear His Name – and thereby Resheph was shown to be non-existent and powerless. Commenting on the Exodus miracles, Habbakuk 3:5 describes how “before him (Yahweh manifest in the Exodus Angel) went the pestilence, and Resheph (AV “burning coals”) went forth at his feet”. To be at someone’s feet is a Biblical idiom for humiliation and destruction. Israel were being taught that at the Exodus, the credibility of Resheph’s existence had been destroyed; the things (e.g. pestilence) he was supposed to do had so evidently been done by Yahweh God of Israel. Notice how in Hab. 3:4 it is God, as manifest in the Angel Michael who brought Israel out of Egypt, who has “horns” and who was responsible for the mass destruction of Egypt and the Canaanite nations.

The sudden destruction and plague in Egypt would have been thought of first of all as the work of Resheph. But Psalm 78:48-49 comments on this: “He (this is where the emphasis should be) gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to Resheph (AV “hot thunderbolts”). He cast upon them the fierceness of His anger (not that of displeased demons), wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending angels of disaster amongst them”. The idea that Resheph had the power to do these things of his own volition is being utterly ridiculed and exposed as pure fantasy.

The spiritually weak within Israel would have been tempted to believe in the existence of Resheph. The sudden destruction of the Assyrian army outside Jerusalem would have perhaps seemed like the work of Resheph. But Psalm 76:3 comments: “There (on that battlefield, see context) brake he (God) Resheph” (AV “the arrows of the bow”).


(1) See R.K. Harrison, “Demonology” in Merril Tenney, ed., The Zondervan Encyclopedia Of The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) Vol. 2 p. 96.

4-2-3 Case Study: The Gods Of Egypt

Consider the plagues upon Egypt; each of those miracles (for that is what they were) was designed by God to expose the utter non-existence of the main Egyptian demons (idols). “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am Yahweh” (Ex. 12:12; 15:11; Num. 33:4). The “gods” are spoken of for a moment as real and existing, in order to show Yahweh’s total superiority over them to the point that they didn’t exist. Note how it was the Egyptian people who were judged (Gen. 15:14); their idols (“gods”) are used by metonymy to stand for those who believed in them. Likewise “demons” is sometimes put by metonymy for those who believed in them (e.g. Mk. 2:32,34). The judgment upon Egypt's gods is brought out by an otherwise obscure reference in Ex. 7:19 to how "there shall be blood in all the land of Egypt on wood and in stone". "Wood and stone" is a term usually used in the Bible for idols; and "the Egyptian priests used to wash the images of their gods in water every day early in the morning" (1). Thus the gods were shown to be effectively dead and bleeding. The greatest Egyptian god was the sun-god Ra, and the Pharaoh was seen as his manifestation on earth. It may be that Pharaoh alludes to this when he threatens Moses: "Look, for there is evil [ra'a] before you" (Ex. 10:10). And Yahweh's response was to darken the sun and create a darkness which could be felt (Ex. 10:21)


Nile water turned to blood

HAPI – the god of the spirit of the Nile


HEKOT – the goddess of magic who had a frog’s head

“The dust of the land” turned to lice or gnats (Exodus 8:16)

SEB – god of the dust of the earth

“Swarms of beetles” (Exodus 8:21 Hebrew)

RA and the forerunner of BEELZEBUB were likened to beetles; much pagan Egyptian jewelry features beetles.

Murrain of cattle

APIS – the sacred bull god

Boils. “Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward heaven… and it shall become… a boil” (Exodus 9:8-9)

NEIT – the queen of the heavens

Thunder and hail

SHU – god of the atmosphere


RA – the sun god


SERAIJA – protector of Egypt from locusts


The Other Gods Of Egypt

Yet rarely is there an explicit denial by God of the existence of those gods. They are shown to be meaningless inventions of men by the sheer power of the miracles. The New Testament use of demon terminology to describe the miracles of Jesus is another example of this. There is no explicit denial of the existence of demons, but their non-existence is demonstrated by the miracles. It is significant that the New Testament language of demon possession only occurs in the context of the power of God being shown through His miracles of healing. And yet, generally, Israel failed to grasp the lesson.

Have you ever wondered why Israel chose to make a golden calf? Why not some other animal? It appears that Israel identified the golden calf with the Egyptian goddess Hathor. "The Egyptian goddess Hathor came in the form of a cow, a woman with a cow’s head, or a woman with cows horns and / or cows ears. She bore several other titles including The Golden One and Mistress of Music. She was the patron of love, motherhood, drunkenness, fun, dance and music. The worship of Hathor degenerated into immorality and she is depicted in some scenes and statues as a sensual young woman. Hathor was the protector of travelers from Egypt to various areas including Sinai" . So Israel so quickly forgot the lesson so artlessly taught them- that the idols / demons of Egypt were of no power at all!
The following references to Hathor provide further insight:

Hathor had several forms including, a cow, a women with a cow’s head, or a woman with cows horns and or ears (2).
Hathor was also known as ‘The Golden One’ (3)
Hathor was the protector of travellers from Egypt to various areas including Sinai (4).
Patron of drunkenness (5)
Hathor had the title ‘Mistress of Music’ (6)
The worship of Hathor included playing on all kinds of musical instruments together with dancing (7).
The worship of Hathor was for the joy and pleasure of those who took part (8).
Hathor is also the goddess of love (9)
The worship of Hathor degenerated into immorality (10).

Whilst considering Israel’s relationship to Egypt, it is fascinating to discover that the dreams of Pharaoh at the time of Joseph were a clear inversion of the surrounding pagan ideas. One of the foremost Egyptian gods, Osiris, had seven cows; it must have taken some courage for Joseph to comment on the fact that the seven fat cows were to be eaten up by the seven thin ones (Gen. 41:20; possibly representing Israel in the long term, cp. Hos. 4:15-16; Am. 4:1). The point I wish to make in the present context is that the pagan ideas of Pharaoh were not explicitly corrected; instead, the supremacy of Yahweh and His people over them was taught by implication.

It has been shown by many writers that there are a number of mythical stories in surrounding Middle Eastern culture which sound like allusions to Biblical miracles like the sun standing still, the Red Sea drying up etc. (11). They attribute these miracles to their various gods. It is quite possible that these legends are only corruptions of the events which occurred in the Biblical record, and had their origin well after the performance of the miracles. However, it is impossible to accurately date the origin of these pagan legends. In accordance with the ample evidence that God did such miracles in order to destroy the credibility of the surrounding mythology and philosophy, it seems quite probable that these legends existed before the Biblical miracles occurred. When God parted the Red Sea or stopped earth’s rotation He would have been powerfully alluding to the legends which stated that such miracles had been done by deity X, Y or Z. It was clear that Yahweh, Israel’s God, had done these things – and in actual reality, not just in storybook legend.

APPENDIX: "Even the demons believe and tremble" (James 2:19)

"Demons" is put here by metonymy for the [supposedly] demon possessed people, and their observed 'trembling' at the time of their cure. But I don't think that this verse is James as it were telling us doctrinal truth about demons. The context of James 2 shows it to be part of an imagined dialogue between the "works man" [who thinks works can save], and a "faith man" [who thinks merely saying we believe is enough and our lives are irrelevant]. Both these imaginary men come out with 'wrong' statements, so it's not surprising that the 'works man' disparages 'faith' by saying that even demon possessed people can believe and be cured. Of itself, this passage can hardly be taken as proof that demons really do believe- the usual position taken is that demons are fallen angels who cannot believe and cannot repent nor be healed. This passage even taken on face value would contradict that system of belief.


(1) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997 ed.) p. 99.

(2) M.A. Murray, Egyptian Temples (London: Duckworth, 1931) pp. 53-54.

(3) Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 5, p.57.

(4) Eretz Israel, Vol. 12, p.118.

(5) Joyce Tyldesley, Hatchepsut The Female Pharaoh (London: Penguin, 1998) p.171.

(6) Joyce Tyldesley, ibid p.171.

(7) M.A. Murray, op cit p. 185.

(8) Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 5, P.57.

(9) D.B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan And Israel In Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) p.232.

(10) M.A. Murray, op cit p.54.

(11) Several standard Religious Education textbooks for schools include some references relevant here. Perhaps the most striking evidence for the extent of the allusions is provided by Immanuel Velikovsky in his books Worlds In Collision and Ages In Chaos ( London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1957 & 1959).


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