As part of a writing project, I have been reviewing different world religions with a particular interest in what they teach concerning sin. During my examination of the Wiccan faith, I kept stumbling across Wiccans who refer to the following verse with a mixture of anger and resentment.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” – Exodus 22:18 (King James Translation)
When reading this verse, it is understandable why there may be hurt feelings. Taken out of context, Exodus 22:18 seems to give Christians blanket permission to kill witches. Considering this is a verse that could be used to justify hate and violence, an in-depth examination seems to be in order.
We must first recognize that while the King James translates the subject of this verse as “witch,” there are slight variances in other translations. Most commonly, I have seen it translated as “sorceress” (NIV, Holman Standard); however, it has also been occasionally translated as “poisoner” – although I feel this last translation is made from weaker manuscripts. Regardless of the translation, most experts believe Exodus 22:18 is addressing those who practiced occult activities such as séances, divination, and spell-casting while eliciting the help of powers outside the one, true God. It is also generally assumed that these magic practitioners were attempting to draw their power in part from Satan. With this in mind, the words “witch” or “sorceress” seem as apt a translation as any.
Although most Wiccans take offense to Scriptures’ use of the word witch, I believe it would be a stretch to compare these witches to the modern adherents to the Wiccan faith. For instance, since Wiccans deny the existence of Satan there seems to be a clear difference between them and witches referred to in this verse. I suspect we are comparing apples to oranges, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the witches of Exodus 22:18 and the witches of modern Wicca are one in the same. Is the Bible giving Christians blanket permission to hunt and kill witches?
The quick answer to this question is no; however, to truly understand why one must understand the context of the verse.
Exodus 22:18 is presented as part of the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:19 through 23:33) and is intended as a guide to teach the Israelites how to incorporate the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17) into their daily lives. These commands came at a time when God was attempting to preserve the Israelites as His chosen people in order to use them in His plan to save all of us. While the Ten Commandments are considered laws that transcend time and culture, the commands that are contained within the Book of the Covenant are specific for the Israelites who received them. Thus, to take any of these Israel-specific commands and argue that they apply directly to those of us in our modern, western culture is a misapplication that misses the point of the text; so if the verse was a direct order to kill all witches it was not a direct order from God to us, but rather from God to those particular Israelites living in that particular time and place.
Even with this said, it can be argued that God wasn’t giving those Israelites a direct order to kill all witches. A reoccurring theme of the Old Testament is Israel’s failure to remain faithful to God. Over and over again God’s chosen people were led astray by pagan religions that placed idols and sex ahead of God. The Ten Commandments begin with instructions that we should have no other Gods before the true God and that we shouldn’t make idols. These were the issues at stake concerning the “witches” that lived among the Israelites.
Because, the Israelites were continually being led astray and losing focus, God instructed them to not allow a witch to “live.” The word live in this case is translated from the Hebrew word châyâh (pronounced khaw-yaw’) and refers to both a literal and figurative life. Exodus 22:18 could have just as easily been translated as a command to not allow witches to live and thrive within the Israelite community. This is especially probable considering the rules against the exploitation and oppression of foreigners presented in Exodus 22:21.
In all fairness, a “witch” or sorceress who refused to leave and continued to lead the Israelites astray would have no doubt faced capital punishment on the command of Exodus 22:18, but I tend to believe this would have only been used as a last resort.
Regardless, those who take this verse out of context and use it as a vehicle for violence are just as guilty of academic laziness as those who read the verse and claim it as evidence that Christianity teaches hate. As always, this verse needs to be placed in its proper context before it can be understood.