Witches and Witchcraft in the Bible

Elizabeth Sloane has written an excellent article on witches and witchcraft in the Bible. The article was published in Haaretz, a newspaper published in Israel.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: A Murderous Mistranslation?

Not everybody agrees that the biblical reference in Exodus is to ‘witches’ as we understand them.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – Exodus 22:18 (22:17 in Hebrew)

This quote, found in the King James Version of the Bible, has been widely held responsible for the witch burnings that plagued Europe, and later America, in the Early Modern Period (1450 C.E. – 1750 C.E.). But the murderous practice may have all been the result of a Biblical mistranslation.

The original Hebrew word used in Exodus, translated as “witch,” is mekhashepha. But what that word actually meant when Exodus was written thousands of years ago, we cannot know, leaving us with only modern interpretations.

The word mekhashepha was translated as “witch” in the Ben Yehuda Hebrew Dictionary. The dictionary was written by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who is considered by many to be the father of modern Hebrew and who established the Academy of the Hebrew language.

The root of the word, kashaph, is translated as “mutterings” by the late Merrill F. Unger, Biblical scholar and theologian, in his book Biblical Demonology. He too essentially interpreted mekhasheph as “witch,” specifically, “one who practices magic by using occult formulas, incantations, and mystic muttering.”

However, Kenneth Kitchen a bible scholar at the University of Liverpool, translates the root as “to cut” and thinks it might refer to cutting herbs (Kenneth Kitchen, Magic and Sorcery, 723).

The article by Sloane goes on to discuss how the Septuagint interpreted the word mekhashepha and whether the book of Exodus is referring to herbalists or poisoners, instead of witches.

Sloane has written a good article that should be read by those who are interested on this topic.

To read the remainder of the article, visit Haaretz online.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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