Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

Út 01 září 2020

There are some verses which are usually very important for every Christian. Everyone of us has one verses like John 3:16 NET (“For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life”), or John 1:12 NET (“But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children”). Then there are verses which we really don’t know what to do with (e.g., just for fun Exodus 35:2b NET “Anyone who does work on [Sabbath] will be put to death.”, Leviticus 25:44 NET “As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you—you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you.” so only Austrian slaves, but I cannot import them from Africa, even if they are a way more affordable?), but then there are verses which nobody disputes but they are for most of us not part of The Bible Verseparade. I expect most of my readers to be Muggles, so I don’t think Exodus 22:18 KJV (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”) is up there in those most important Biblical verses of your life.

However, I think that even for us, Muggles, this verse can bring a very important lesson, and this is not the one I hear usually when it comes to be the subject of a Christian talk.

First of all, let me add here disclaimer: whatever I say in the following paragraphs should not be understood as approval of occult in any shape or form. Even if I claim this verse to be more complicated and less useful that it usually is thought to be, I still fully believe that Bible stands very clearly against any form of occult, divination or wiccan practices. Not only they are usually sin against the First Commandment, but they are quite certainly always a sin against the Eleventh One (“Thou shall not be stupid.”). Discussion of occult is not subject of this article.

Let me start with a short historian’s exercise. Czech polymath, universal artist, overall genius, and gynaecologist amateur, Jára Cimrman, very sternly urged great men of history to consider the day when they accomplish their great achievement and think about future students who will have to learn about it in their history classes. We can commend the Czech king and German emperor Charles IV. for founding the Prague university now named after him in year 1348, because everybody knows that all great events of Czech history are supposed to happen in the year ending with 48, but April 7th is completely unconscionable date, when he could wait just two weeks, and he would be at least found the university on Easter (April 17th 1348). On the other hand, we should really appreciate action of the pope Leo III who made Charlemagne the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on the Christmas Day of year 800.

Year 800 AD is very good interesting point in the history for couple of reasons. First of all, what do you know about that year in the history (of course, you know that Holy Roman Empire was founded, but something else). What happened here in the are of the current Czechia?

No, Saint Wenceslaus lived hundred years later (died most likely in year 935). And no, Great Moravia and Saint Cyril and Methodius came to our lands fifty years later (that is truly the beginning of the history of these lands). And for comparison from other countries with better documented history, no, Alfred the Great is fifty years later as well. For Czech lands we really know almost nothing. Some German chronicles barely mentioned that the area exists, and there are some rumours about Charlemagne going through Bohemia around 805, but that’s basically all we know about this place in that time.

Let me put here few notes about year 800 AD. First one is really brief: when we think what happened eight hundred years ago (1220), we considered such event to happen really long time ago, so long time ago, that anything is hardly known about it. Well, Christianity was that old in that year. Because it was long time ago from our point of view, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t long time from the beginning of the Church as well.

Next comment is by Chesterton: we have tendency to always view history as something which happened in past, and we are the glorious (or not-so-glorious) culmination of past events. What if we are not the end of history, what if we are just the beginning? What if thousands years later, people will sing heroic songs about our deeds, and discuss whether somebody so unbelievable as Presidents Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel truly existed or if they were just a myth? Just a food for thought.

Second note is substantially longer. We can use those twelve hundred years which separate us (roughly) from that year as a measure with which we can consider the flow of time. One step from us is year 800 AD, second step is 800 AD - 1200 = 400 BC. It is one year from the death of Socrates, and it is roughly what could be declared the beginning of the Classical Antiquity. I heard this example originally from a historical podcast about philosophy, where they wanted to stress that although the history of that era is compressed in our high-school history textbooks to few chapters, and just after the chapter on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the next chapter is about the Golden Roman era, Jesus, and Seneca. Except there was four hundred years between those two points in time, like from us to Descartes (to keep ourselves in the history of philosophy; and yes, exactly four hundred years ago, in 1620, Descartes was one of the French mercenaries who fought and was wounded on the Protestant side in the Battle of White Mountain next to Prague, which started the Thirty-years War). We are missing the true depth of the various eras in our history.

However, year 400 BC may be the beginning of the Classical Antiquity, but in the biblical history it is still too late. All canonical history of the Old Testament already happened, Jews were back from the Babylonian captivity, and even the majority of the Old Testament itself was already written. So, if we want to get to the beginning of the Biblical time, we need to take our historical measure and make one more step. 400 BC - 1200 = 1600 BC (exact years, or even centuries, are not that important, chronology of that era is really vague and uncertain). And somewhere there we finally get to the times the Old Testament writes about. That is how really far away we are.

What I wanted to say by this example is to emphasize how incredibly distant were people living in the Biblical times from us. We usually don’t have any problems to accept that most of us know almost nothing about this era outside of the Biblical narrative, so I don’t think it is so outrageous to be cautious about our understanding of the Biblical text from those times.

Let us return back to witches in the Old Testament. There are surprisingly few verses explicitly dealing with witchcraft. Most important are four verses (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:26, 20:27, and Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Let us start with the last one (YLT):

There is not found in thee one causing his son and his daughter to `abar ba-'esh (H5674, H784), a user of qosem qesamim (H7080), a me’onen (H6049), and a menakhesh (H5172), and a [practices] mekhashef (H3784), // and a châbar (H2266) cheber (H2267), and one wə·šō·’êl ’ō·wḇ yidde'oni (H7592 H178 H3049), doresh el ha-metim (H1875 H4191).

Young’s Literal Translation gives us this:

There is not found in thee one causing his son and his daughter to pass over into fire, a user of divinations, an observer of clouds, and an enchanter, and a sorcerer, // and a charmer, and one asking at a familiar spirit, and a wizard, and one seeking unto the dead.

NET Bible this:

There must never be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer.

Without even looking at the English translations, it is obvious that this is some kind of list of technical terms. Whole interpretation of these two verses stands and falls with the exact translation of these terms.

Let me add here one very hypothetical example. Let us imagine, that after this verse about magic, there is another one, which reads:

You shall not permit bunja’h to live.

Whole translation of the verse again hinges on the understanding of the term bunja’h (completely make-up word just for the purpose of this example). Unfortunately, this word is never ever mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, and we don’t know anything about it even from other ancient Hebrew literature (i.e., it is hapax legomenon).

Imagine Saint Jerome sitting over this text racking his brain over this verse. In the end he dives into books about the Hebrew language, asks neighbouring rabbis for help, and then they conclude that by using languages of other ancient Near East nations it could be said that the word is based on roots of words “man” and “knife”, so it could be literally translated as something like “a man with a knife”. Jerome puts that in his translation project (later to be called Vulgate) and whole history of the Latin Christianity is then marred with the persecution of cooks and butchers. They have to live outside of the normal society in the neighbourhood of tanners, hangmen, and knackers, and in the difficult times and time of crisis they are frequently victims of pogroms.

Poor Jerome didn’t know, that “a man with a knife” was in the ancient Palestine a slang expression for the assassin, who killed his victims with a knife.

That’s an illustration how difficult is our situation and on the other hand, how important is to get the translation right, to fully understand it. And just to make it clear, there are over 400 true hapax legomenon in the Hebrew Bible alone. For example, “gopher wood” from Genesis 6:14 has not been found anywhere else, so we really don’t know what the Noah’s ark was really made from (the idea it was cypress which is a common translation is just because it was the wood ships were usually made from, but there is no evidence it was really so; what is the biblical author wanted to emphasize something by Noah building a ship from some unusual wood?).

Back to our verse in Deuteronomy.

There is not found in thee one causing his son and his daughter to `abar ba-'esh (H5674, H784), a user of qosem qesamim (H7080), a me’onen (H6049), and a menakhesh (H5172), and a [practices] mekhashef (H3784), // and a châbar cheber (H2266 H2267), and shâ'al ob (H7592 H178), and a yidde'oni (H3049), and one doresh el ha-metim (H1875 H4191).

Understating of some of these terms is rather straightforward. The context is the interdict on the pagan practices of divination, so qosem qesamim is literally “distributes distributions”, and according to the commentaries to the Czech study Bible, it means some kind of divination by observing either spread lots or arrows shot in front of the diviner. Another commentaries (NET Bible) claims it is just a generic term for any diviner who predicts future from observing various omens and signs. However, it is obvious it is some kind of divination, although we are not completely certain how exactly it was done.

menakhesh has very complicated meaning. According to some it is just a generic term for any divination by observing signs and omens (Strong’s Dictionary). According to other (Czech Bible commentary, Wikipedia) this word derives from the word for snake, and as a verb it literally translates to hissing. It could mean either some kind of whispering or murmuring incantation, or it may signifies a snake charmer.

yidde'oni means “consults a medium or familiar spirit”, and these mean just what the literal translation suggests.

`abar ba-'esh means literally “pass over into fire” and it is understood to be just repetition of the interdict on the human sacrifice, here probably specifically the sacrifice of children to the Canaanite god Moloch.

doresh el ha-metim is slightly more complicated. Literally it means “inquires of the dead” (or “(one who) questions corpses”), which most English versions of the Bible translate as “necromancy”, but my Czech commentary suggests a diviner lying in a grave waiting for the vision there.

me’onen has rather obscure meaning. The literal translation is something like “conjure clouds”, which if it is meant to be some kind of magic, sounds to me more like some weather modifying, but if it is in the context of divination the commentaries claimed it to be aeromancy (divination from the shape of clouds), which is documented from the late ancient Rome (5th century CE) and it is thought to have been used by the ancient Babylonian priests. Given how accessible clouds usually are, I have no problems to imagine that some kind of divination from them could exist, but it is certainly not something which was very widespread. On the other hand, NET Bible commentary explains that it is not about clouds, but about conjuring spirits and apparitions. Rashi’s commentary mentions, that The Sages said, that this referred to those who “catch the eyes” [i.e., they deceived public by creating optical illusions].

mekhashef is translated as “sorcery”, but this meaning is far from certain and obvious. (khashef and khesh come from the same root, which means snake)

châbar cheber means literally “join joinings”, which is not very clear. Rashi means that this is “One who collects snakes, scorpions or other creatures into one place.” The second word means either spells and charms, or something collected together, association, shared household, company of priests. Czech commentary to the Ecumenical translation suggests even a relationship with bindings in Matthew 18:18.

The overall meaning I was trying to convey in this whole analysis was twofold. First of all,


  1. Exodus 22:18 (LXX): “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.”
  2. Leviticus 19:26 “You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.“
  3. Leviticus 20:27 (LXX) “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned to death, their blood is upon them.”

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My overall feeling is that this is mostly about divination, predicting future, not much about for example healing magic. Which is no surprise, because until way into the Enlightenment the difference between the medical science and medical magic was really ambiguous (or perhaps, a way longer).

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Another poorly translated verse:

https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g402

Many of them also which used curious arts G4021 brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. (KJV)

Large numbers of those who had practiced magic G4021 collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins. (NET)

Acts 19:19

The same word G4021 is then used in 1. Timothy 5:13:

And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not.

(nothing nice, but it doesn’t seem like a witchcraft to me).

Those are only two occurrences of the word in NT (and it is never used in LXX).

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I have to admit

Existuje několik fanfikcí, které se tímto problémem zabývají z hlediska většinou zhruba jedenáctiletých dětí, pro které je tento verš rozhodující pro celý jejich život. Některé příběhy jsou jenom hloupé a ventilují si jakousi frustraci autora pravděpodobně s americkou evangelikální církví, ale některé se problémem reálně zabývají. Většinou profesoři v Bradavicích, kouzelnické škole ve Skotsku, kde nešťastná mladá čarodějnice studuje (nevím proč se vždycky jedná o dívku), se jí snaží přesvědčit, že se partikulární zákazy musí vysvětlovat, a helvétská konfese s nimi souhlasí, takovým výkladem, „jenž se shoduje s pravidlem víry a lásky a slouží výborně k slávě Boží a spáse lidí.“, ale dívka většinou s takovým vysvětlením není úplně spokojená, protože si nechce z Písma Svatého dělat trhací kalendář a odhazovat části jenom proto, že jí nevyhovují.

Proč tohle vyprávím v evangelickém mudlovském kostele je, že jsem konečně našel jeden příběh, který vzal celý problém podle mého za správný konec. Co opravdu víme o chápání magie ve starověkém světě, co víme o magii ve starověké hebrejštině, co doopravdy víme o magii? Co když slovo, které ze starověké hebrejštiny překládáme jako „čarodějnice“ je ve skutečnosti nějaký technický termín, který označuje nějaký druh černokněžnice, používající magii k nekalým cílům?

Jak dobře mohli mudlovští, tedy nemagičtí, pisatelé, překladatelé a komentátoři Písma opravdu správně zaznamenat a přeložit něco, čemu v podstatě moc nerozuměli? A to platí i ve chvíli, kdy nevěříme na reálnou existenci magie. Jsem si jist, že i lidé, kteří praktikovali magii klidně jako podvod nebo pověru v té době, měli pro své konání terminologii, která je obávám se z větší části pro nás lidi jednadvacátého století ztracená. Ve chvíli, kdy se zaberete do studia komentářů i specializovaných knih o magii starověkého Blízkého Východu [1], a snažíte se zjistit, co doopravdy znamená hebrejské slovo, které zde překládáme jako „čarodějnice“, odpovědí je veliké zmatení, které se zdá zakrývat bezradnost. Takto kniha tvrdí, že se jedná bylinkářku (snad připravující jedy?), jiní tvrdí, že to je vědma předpovídající budoucnost z par vystupujících z nějaké jámy naplněné čímsi, existují i názory, že se jedná o jakousi zaklínačku, která kletbami škodí druhým.

Takže tohle je první závěr, který bych chtěl předat z tohoto kázání: samozřejmě, že je v Bibli spousta věcí, které jsou jednoduché a zjevné, a které i ta stará žena na Táboře může pochopit. Sloužit cizím Bohům je špatný nápad, podvádět manželku/manžela také, vraždit bližního je zcela mimo, milovati ho je mnohem lepší nápad. Ale na druhou stranu ne všechno v Bibli je jednoduché a pokud se tváříme, že je, dostaneme se do velmi ošklivých konců, jako jsou hony na čarodějnice šestnáctého a sedmnáctého století.


Jiftah a jeho dcera (Soudců 11 a 12 kaptiola) je příkladem lidské oběti a čistého černokněžnictví.

[1]https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=QaT1tVK0uZIC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Before I (finally) get to them, let me add one more side track: while looking for these verses, and studying them, I have met [2] quite couple of mentions of actions or practices described in the Bible (both Old and New Testament), which looked to me very much like occult practices and which would today be strongly prohibited by all Bible-loving churches. Bible just notices them, but neither condemns them, nor even comments on their (un-)righteousness:

  • Joseph’s silver cup used for divination, Numbers 5:12-31, Urim & Thummim, Elisha cursing small boy who calls him “badly”, lots, Daniel was supervisor of “the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers” (Daniel 5:11). In the New Testament Paul’s declaration in Acts 13:6-12 looks uncomfortably like a curse, and Acts 5:9 perhaps too (this one is more explainable).
[2]Mostly from http://www.religioustolerance.org/divin_bibl.htm

Category: faith Tagged: sermon english Bible