Do Not Suffer a Witch to Live.

Exodus 22:18 is one of the most infamous passages of scripture ever written. I’ve read several translations, slipped between the lines and context, even gone into the Torah and Talmud, and at the end of the day, it still plainly states:

Do not suffer a witch/sorceress to live.

The Book of Exodus recounts the adventures of the Children of Israel right after Yahweh delivered them from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In effect, Exodus and the following book of Leviticus set the rules and standards of this traveling nation. God had set them apart, made them his own people, and would now take them into the promised land of Canaan.

But this relocation program came with a price: the covenant and the Law.

Now therefore, if ye will obey my[God] voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine.” –Exodus 19:5

From this point forward we are given verse after verse, chapter after chapter outlining rules, regulations, and duties for this new “holy” nation. One of the biggest taboos is witchcraft and sorcery. The Children of Israel had apparently picked up some “bad” habits from the Egyptians with divination, communing with “familiar spirits,” and other religious no-no’s. But why is such a practice bad enough to elicit death?

"Burning a German Witch" by Albert Keller

According to Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:

In every form of witchcraft there is an appeal to a power not acting in subordination to the divine law. From all such notions and tendencies true worship is designed to deliver us. The practice of witchcraft was therefore an act of rebellion against Yahweh, and, as such, was a capital crime.

Rebellion against Yahweh. But what if you don’t believe in Yahweh to begin with? In reading through the Scriptures, it doesn’t seem to matter. In looking back through Judeo-Christian historical treatment of Pagans and Witches, it doesn’t seem to matter.

If you practice witchcraft or sorcery, if you appeal to powers and influences other than that of Yahweh, you are subject to execution. But here’s the interesting part. The Bible describes the practice of witchcraft and sorcery as if it actually worked, as if it existed in some parallel with God. Otherwise, why give it such a harsh punishment? Read through the Bible and pay attention to the more famous accounts. Moses, Joshua, David, even Jesus…all of them performed “supernatural” feats such as healing the sick, interpreting dreams, composing chants and songs.

Sounds a whole lot like the material I’ve studied this month as a Wiccan. Perhaps Yahweh was as jealous as he said he was. Perhaps he wanted to corner the market on the use of power which exists in this universe independently. Because otherwise, why fear these witches and sorcerers? If their power is just an illusion, then there’s nothing to fear. Keep in mind that the concept of the “devil” as an evil opponent of God had not even come into existence by this point. Satan’s modern prototype wouldn’t even hit the Jewish scene until after the Babylonian Captivity a few hundred years later.

So what exactly was so evil?

Witches, Wiccans, Pagans…they’ve caught a bad wrap for thousands of years. Humanity has burned them, tortured them, hunted them down, and pushed them to the edges of society. When I was a hard-core Christian in high school I thought the same way. Why?

Fear. Fear is the child of ignorance and ignorance is the bastard child of hatred. Beyond that, we have jealousy. Jealous of the chance that there is a power out there that we can tap into independently.  Some of us like to lock ourselves away spiritually–it happens within the ideological halls of every faith–and so those who dare to stand alone are almost always condemned.

If being “set apart” means eliminating everything and everyone different than yourself, do you really want that “privilege” or “duty?”

What discrimination have you faced for being different in this regard? Are you the spiritual minority? People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), how would you react if your spiritual leadership insisted upon a strict adherence to the Scriptures? How far would you go? How important is this divine directive to you?

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Susan Ulrich

    What is interesting is that the command to execute “witches” is not always carried out. Also,there is at least one example in the Old Testament of a “witch” being portrayed in a positive, affirming light. 1Samuel28:3-25 In this text the “witch” of Endor is seen as ministering to the fragile,sinning King Saul in a manner that is reminiscent of David’s minstry to Saul with music. This does not imply that “witchcraft” is equal to the power of Yahweh but it might speak to the ability of the omnipotent, omniscient Creator God to utilize all the gifts s/he gave to creation

    • abowen

      Rev. Ulrich,

      Thank you for that insight!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment CSO

    As a former Christian who now borders on Agnosticism, I shall say:

    The laws in the Torah, including this one, were not meant for Christians, or humanity at large, to practice. These were to be practiced by Israelites, regarging fellow Israelites, within their homeland.

    There is no justification for followers of Christ to practice any sort of violence…much less burn anyone at the stake. And yet even ‘Christians’ burned fellow ‘Christians’ for following the dictates of their conscience.

    It’s a unfortunate lesson that teaches the need for more Tolerance.

    • abowen


      Great point about Christians burning fellow Christians.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Helen/Hawk

    Why spend time (and all this space) writing the definitions of another religion? I appreciate it’s a lead-in about anti-hate. But only if your readers keep going after more than 1/2 of the essay.

    Sorry Andrew, more appropriate if this had been a history lesson w/ mention of the Bible’s quote. Visioning some research on what we call THE BURNING TIMES shared and how the influence is true still today thru-out the world.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Pam34

    That verse is probably best interpreted as ‘you shall not permit a poisoner to make a living’.

    Plus – as mentioned above – it’s addressed to a specific community, not ‘all mankind everywhere all the time’.

  • Kora Kaos

    Yes, I always thought this was strange. Why bother having an injunction against witchcraft? Anytime any “Christian” quotes such, or any “Pagan” quotes that I ought to believe in these “Christian” quotes so literally just because I believe in an “Abrahamic” God, I just think: Ok, so why did Joseph use a divination cup? Why did he use dream magic? Why was Jesus so often depicted with a magic wand?

    *shrug* Sometimes I think that there is no witchcraft outside of God, because how could one possibly do anything that was not within an omnipresent God? The only thing I can think is that it would be against his law, that is, love. That the sort of witchcraft that is against the law is against the law only because everything that is not love is against the law.

    And then again, I think of these quotes, as I think often of certain quotes that are supposedly ascribed to God, that maybe he was just testing us. The rabbi who taught me, and other teachers, say that it is ok to argue with God. I mean, I think- is he just putting this out there just to see if we’ll do what he say? Because maybe he doesn’t want us to do so. But he wants to see if we’ll just blindly follow nonsense.

    Or maybe a scribe was having a bad day.

    At any rate, I’m not too worried. I know the divine and I know magic, and I work with it pretty well. If anyone else wants to worry about it that’s their own fearful problem.

    • abowen


      It is indeed okay to argue with God. Some might view this as blasphemy, but I ask why? Doesn’t arguing with God assume that you believe in the divine enough to have a passionate dialog? Keep going, my friend. I enjoy your perspectives.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JK Baughman

    I got news for you pal, the muslim spiritual leadership is insisting upon a strict adherence to their scriptures. How far would you go, you ask? They are going all the way and then some! You think withches suffered in he past? Wait until this cancer of islam takes hold…you haven’t seen anything yet.