Witches and Witchcraft in the Bible

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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 Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Book of Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, Witches, Women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Witches and Witchcraft in the Bible

  1. Laura Gradishar-Miller says:

    Congratulations on your anniversary! Twelve years is a very admirable accomplishment! I enjoyed your class, and hope you are enjoying your retirement! God Bless!


    • Laura,

      Thank you for your nice words. I enjoyed having you in my classes and I appreciate your good work. Retirement so far has been very busy, but I know that I will enjoy spending more time with my sons and their children.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Hecate's Grove says:

    Very interesting,,thank you for your post


  3. Exra says:

    This is complete nonsense and it is amazing the such stupidity is found among people who have spent years studying in universities and hold advanced degrees.
    Just a tiny bit of research reveals that Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach killed 80 witches in one day, some 50 or so years before the common era, long before Christians were translating the Bible. A rabbi killed 80 witches who lived in a cave together where they “harmed the world” is what the Jewish documentation of the event proclaims. It is doubtful any mistranslation is responsible for their deaths.


    • Exra,

      Thank you for your comment. What is amazing to me is that a Rabbi believed in witches. In the Salem witch trials, many people were falsely accused of witchcraft and doing the work of the devil.

      Claude Mariottini


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