Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?
A few days ago I stumbled upon an article published on a website named Haaretz which appears to be a news site for Israeli news. The article entitled "Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: A Murderous Translation," discussed the correct understanding of Exodus 22:18. According to the Haaretz article (authored by Elizabeth Sloane), the word "witch" may have been an erroneous translation. And, to read into Ms. Sloane's argument just a bit, the erroneous translation contributed to the deaths of many innocent witches. Specifically, she notes:
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.Now, as I am not an expert on ancient Hebrew, I need to approach translation issues such as this by accessing sources readily available to anyone through the Internet. But even using these limited tools, I find this effort to re-translate Exodus to somehow claim that it is a mistranslation that has resulted in the death of hundreds (if not thousands) of witches to be a bit disingenuous.
What does Exodus 22:18 say?
First, Ms. Sloane says that the translation of the verse as "witch" is found in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Now admittedly, the KJV was the primary English translation used in English speaking countries for many years, so it is the version that would have been looked to by many people as the authoritative version of the Bible. It was also certainly true (to the great consternation of the King James Only crowd) that the KJV is far from a perfect translation of the original texts. But modern scholarship has not changed the view that Exodus 22:18 was accurately translated in the KJV because it remains pretty consistently translated by the various major Bible versions as either "witch" or "sorceress."
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (KJV)
"You shall not permit a sorceress to live." (NKJV, ESV & RSV)
"You must not allow a sorceress to live." (NLT, NET)
"Do not allow a sorceress to live." (NIV)
"You shall not allow a sorceress to live." (NASB)
Obviously, the translations are communicating over and over that a particular something exists that must not be allowed to live. The question that the Haaretz article raises is what is it that the ancient Israelites were told should not be permitted to live.
Witch or Herbalist?
The Haaretz article reports that some find the translation of the Hebrew word mekhashepha as "witch" or "sorceress" to be inaccurate. Rather, the word should be translated as "poisoner" or "herbalist." The Haaretz article notes:
[What mekhashepha] actually meant when Exodus was written thousands of years ago, we cannot know, leaving us with only modern interpretations.There are several reasons that I don't believe that the word word mekhashepha found in Exodus 22:16 has been mistranslated. The first is that I don't believe that Dr. Kenneth Kitchen is of the opinion that mekhashepha should be translated as "herbalist." It is true that he does believe that the word may be related to the verb "to cut," but that does not equate with the need to translate it "herbalist" or "poisoner." As noted in an article published in the Scientific Electronic Library Online entitled "'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' (Exod 22:18) and contemporary Akan Christian belief and practice: A translational and hermeneutical problem" by Yaw Adu-Gyamfi, if Dr. Kitchen is correct, the use of the verb "to cut" is perfectly consistent with the idea of witchcraft or sorcery. According to Professor Abu-Gyamfi:
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 mutterings."
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).
That interpretation of mekhashepha comes closer to what is said in the Septuagint, the translation of Hebraic traditions into Greek that was written by Jewish sages in around the 3rd century B.C.E.
In the Septuagint, mekhashepha was translated into pharmakeia. Ann Jeffers, lecturer in Biblical Studies at Heythrop College, translates “pharmakeia” to “herbalist”.
However, Reginald Scott, a British Member of Parliament in the 16th century, witchcraft skeptic and one time student at Oxford, translated pharmakia to mean "poisoner" in his book The Discoverie of Witchcraft.
Might Exodus refer to herbalists or poisoners, instead of witches?
is a participial feminine singular in the pi 'el stem which suggests the idea of a feminine practitioner. This feminine form occurs only here in Exod 22:18. Brevard Childs notes that the feminine form "sorceress" would indicate the frequency with which the practice was identified with women. It has been strongly contended that the Hebrew feminine term used in the full text of Exod 22:18 and usually translated "sorceress," means either a mixer of drugs or someone who cuts up herbs for poison. In terms of the participial form, it can also quite simply and effectively be translated "a woman practicing magic."In the Haaretz article, Ms. Sloane acknowledges that Prof. Yitshak Sefati, senior lecturer of Bible and Assyriology at Bar-Ilan University, makes the case that the use of the same word in Deuteronomy 18:10 clearly references witchcraft when it uses the same word (bolded in the quotation) in saying:
There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. (Deut. 18:10-11)Professor Sefati is apparently satisfied that "While this does not make them sorcerers, it puts them in the same category." But Prof. Jeffers disagrees, noting that "the political situation when Deuteronomy was written was different than at the time Exodus was written. It was during the period that Deuteronomy was written that prophets such as Josiah were actively attempting religious reforms, such as eliminating 'God's wife,' Asherah. It was during that period that the meaning could have changed."
However, it is also helpful to note that the same base word is used in Exodus 7:7 (thus effectively eliminating the argument made by Prof. Jeffers about the differences in times when the books were written) where the word is again used in a context that clearly indicates that it is dealing with witchcraft: "Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments." To interpret that as saying that Pharoah called the herbalists makes no sense.
It seems to me that the great weight of authority is for the term to be translated "witch" or "sorceress," and the use of the term "herbalist" or "poisoner" is both unwarranted and does not fit at least two of the other situations where the term is used.
The Underlying Problem with the Haaretz Article
But I don't believe that the point of this article is really to draw a fine-line interpretation. Ms. Sloane does not appear to be someone who views a conservative or orthodox interpretation of the verse favorably as noted from her last paragraph:
Even without a definitive translation, is unlikely that the King James Bible quote, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” is a wholly accurate translation. This means that the witch-hunts that Europe suffered were based on superstitious nonsense with no basis in the Bible or in reality.Ms. Sloane does not enlighten us with the basis for believing that the KJV interpretation (as supplemented and backed-up by numerous other modern versions) is probably not a "wholly accurate translation." But her view that the well-intended but theologically flawed efforts of ancient peoples to follow this verse by killing witches is based on "superstitious nonsense with no basis in the Bible or in reality" reveals all I need to know about her leanings.
So, what is the point of the Haaretz article? I suspect it is this: To accuse Christians of using a bad translation of a verse to justify killing innocent witches. What Ms. Sloane doesn't recognize is this: The verse does not need to be mistranslated for the Christians to have killed witches in violation of God's will. Assuming that Exodus 22:18 is accurately translated "witch" or "sorceress", it does not follow that Christians should go out and kill witches. In fact, that would violate God's law.
The Christians of older times simply did not fully grasp the idea that the punishments found in verses such as Exodus 22:18 were intended as law for the people of Israel to follow, but those punishments were done away with when Christ gave his life for sinners on the cross. Why? Because Christ died to pay all of those punishments, and since the day of his resurrection, it is not the place of Christians to seek the death of others simply for violating a Biblical proscription. It is, instead, our job to reach out to others who are involved in all ungodly activities to bring them into right relationship with God. Killing them does not accomplish that task.
Ultimately, Exodus 22:18 appears to be accurately translated as "witch" or "sorceress." Still, what people in older times and in their zeal to follow the Bible missed is that we are to be evangelists and not executioners. Killing witches violates the new emphasis on loving your neighbor and bringing all people (including those under condemnation under the Biblical law) to repentance. But is Exodus 22:18 accurately translated witch? I conclude that it is.