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As I was reading my Bible completely through from the beginning I ran across this verse in Exodus 22:18:

You should not suffer a sorceress to live.

Up to this point, other than God's wonders, and those of Pharaoh's "magicians", magic hasn't really been addressed.

Now it is my understanding that these laws being handed down, were for the purpose of helping Moses not have to sit in judgment constantly. A little general rulebook for those without common sense and moral direction. "This is how we do it now" book, if you will. So this leads me to believe that sorcery was clearly an issue.

So what made someone a sorceress? Is there a CLEAR definition of what they considered sorcery at the time?

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Exodus 22:18 (note it is 22:17 in the Hebrew text) is one of those texts which may be especially susceptible to anachronistic treatments based on putative translations rather than relevant historical and linguistic evidence.

First, then, the text:

Masoretic text: :מְכַשֵּׁפָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה
mĕkaššēpâ lōʾ tĕḥayyeh
You shall not allow a mĕkaššēpâ to live.

Septuagint: φαρμακοὺς οὐ περιποιήσετε
pharmakous ou peripoiēsete
You shall not keep pharmakous [plural] alive.

The Hebrew term appears here as a feminine singular form; elsewhere (Exod. 7:11; Deut. 18:10; 2 Chr. 33:6; Dan. 2:2; Mal. 3:5) it is masculine (3× plural, 2× singular). Rashi applies the Exodus text to both men and women.

The Septuagint translation (pharmakos) is one of the pieces of evidences which inspires Ann Jeffers, in her specialist study Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (Brill, 1996), to render this term as "herbalist" (see pages 65-70).

As Jeffers notes, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (vol, 8, "K", p. 284) glosses the verb kašāpu with "to bewitch, to cast an evil spell", and the contexts cited share the sense of malevolent control of a person (or even place). In the Mesopotamian framework, these practitioners contrasted with the āšipu and asû who were the "legitimate" exorcist and herbalist.1

Staying within the Hebrew Bible, however, an important text for evaluating OP's wider question is Deuteronomy 18:9-14, where a number of illicit and prohibited wielders of supernatural power are listed in vv. 10-11 [WEB]. Our term, mĕkaššēp, is the last one listed in v. 10:

10 There shall not be found with you anyone who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices sorcery, or an enchanter, or a mĕkaššēp, 11 or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12 For whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh. ...

It is thus distinguished from those typified by "casting spells". There could well be overlap between the "dark arts" practiced by these figures, and specificity in some cases eludes us. On the other hand, simply "flattening" all these figures as "sorcerer" or "witch" is also to neglect the nuance that can be brought to bear in a discussion of this sphere.

That even "herbalists" -- if such they are -- could be malefactors is certainly the case. What is not clear is that this term should conjure up (ahem) images of witches and sorcerers far distant from the cultural horizon of the biblical text.


Note

  1. So Tzvi Abusch, Mesopotamian Witchcraft: Towards a History and Understanding of Babylonian Witchcraft Beliefs and Literature (Brill, 2002), pp. 4-14.
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From Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers:

Exodus 22:18 [cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-11] - Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.—The word translated [by some Bible versions] “witch” . . . is the feminine singular [i.e., sorceress of that rendered by “sorcerers” in Exodus 7:11, and means “a mutterer of charms.” The use of the feminine form can only be accounted for by supposing that, practically, witchcraft was at the time mainly professed by females. Whether “witches” had actual help from evil spirits, or only professed to work magical effects by their aid, the sin against God was the same. Jehovah was renounced, and a power other than His invoked and upheld. Witchcraft was as much rebellion against God as idolatry or blasphemy, and deserved the same punishment [my emphasis].

From Benson Commentary:

Exodus 22:18. Witchcraft not only gives that honour to the devil which is due to God alone, but bids defiance to the divine providence, wages war with God’s government, puts his work into the devil’s hand, expecting him to do good and evil.

In the account in 1 Samuel of Saul's encounter with the witch (or medium, NASB Updated) at Endor, the woman asked Saul,

"'Whom shall I bring up for you?' And [Saul] said, 'Bring up Samuel for me.' When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, 'Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul. . . . I see a divine being coming up out of the earth'" (vv.11-13).

From the footnotes of the NET Bible comes the following:

"The Hebrew term translated “mediums” actually refers to a pit used by a magician to conjure up underworld spirits (see 2 Kgs 21:6). In v. 7 the witch of Endor is called the owner of a ritual pit. See H. Hoffner, “Second Millennium Antecedents to the Hebrew ’OñBù,” JBL 86 (1967): 385-401. Here the term refers by metonymy to the owner of such a pit (see H. A. Hoffner, TDOT 1:133)".

Now obviously, while the word witch (or sorceress) is not the same word, medium, used in the 1 Samuel passage, the witch at Endor intended to act as a medium between this world and the realm of the dead and "call up" a spirit; that is, until God "beat her to the punch"!

Interestingly, a sorceress could anachronistically be called an occult druggist or herbalist who uses drugs and herbs in her ritual pit--along with her mutterings--either to (possibly) communicate with an evil spirit ("demon") which would mimic the dearly departed, or simply to set the stage for what she knew to be a sham, much like the hostess of a séance might do today. Either way, the witch at Endor was evidently shocked ("she cried out with a loud voice") to be seeing the spirit of Samuel, which/who appeared to her as an "old man wrapped in a robe."

To set the stage, so to speak, albeit in an artistic, anachronistic, humorous way, I could do no better than to quote Shakespeare. (from Macbeth):

A dark Cave. In the middle, a Caldron boiling. Thunder.

            Enter the three Witches.

   1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd. 
   2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd. 
   3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—'tis time! 'tis time! 
   1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;

     In the poison'd entrails throw.— 
     Toad, that under cold stone, 
     Days and nights has thirty-one; 
     Swelter'd venom sleeping got, 
     Boil thou first i' the charmed pot! 

   ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble; 
         Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 

   2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake, 
             In the caldron boil and bake; 
             Eye of newt, and toe of frog, 
             Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, 
             Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, 
             Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,— 
             For a charm of powerful trouble, 
             Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. 

   ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble; 
         Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 

   3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf; 
             Witches' mummy; maw and gulf 
             Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark; 
             Root of hemlock digg'd i the dark; 
             Liver of blaspheming Jew; 
             Gall of goat, and slips of yew 
             Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse; 
             Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips; 
             Finger of birth-strangled babe 
             Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,— 
             Make the gruel thick and slab: 
             Add thereto a tiger's chaudron, 
             For the ingrediants of our caldron. 

   ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble; 
         Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 

   2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon's blood, 
             Then the charm is firm and good. 

All these incantations could fall into the category of "mutterings," which is the biblical term for sorcerers' locutions, whatever form they may have taken in the history of Israel .

The study of the occult from a biblical perspective is a complicated one, in no small part because of the various and numerous terms used of these forbidden practices. These terms include (not an exhaustive list):

  • sorcerer, sorcerers, sorceress

  • enchanters

  • Chaldeans

  • wise men

  • diviners

  • interpreters of dreams

  • auguries

  • wizards

  • teraphim

  • those who purge a child by fire

  • omens

  • incantations

  • signs

  • questioners of the dead

  • auspices

  • spells, cast spells

Depending on the context, then, a sorceress could be a medium, a witch, a diviner, a spell caster, a soothsayer, a questioner of the dead, a magician, or a specialist in incantation. The primary tool of her trade, besides drugs and herbs, was mutterings designed to communicate with the spirit world, which we today would call the realm of the devil (and his demons), the father of lies, deceptions, half-truths, illusions, and counterfeits of the truth.

In conclusion, God is light, but occasionally God, at His own discretion, will delegate tasks to the dark world, as He did with Balaam, the lying prophet (see Numbers 22, and cf. 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 1:11). To seek the powers of or favors from "principalities, powers, and authorities" (Ephesians 6:12) is an affront to God, and those who do so are subject to His wrath (see, for example, Acts 19:13-20), hence God's command that a sorceress be put to death (Exodus 28:18).

  • What does the definition of magic/sorcery from a European play written in the 16th century CE have to do with a Near Eastern concept from the 6th century BCE? – Dan Jul 28 '14 at 20:08
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    @Daи: Do you really think witchcraft, sorcery, and the "black arts" have really changed that much over the centuries? I don't. I included the Shakespeare excerpt because it illustrates (but doesn't provide a "definition"--your word) artistically and fantastically the muttering of the sorceresses, whom Ellicott defined as mutterers of charms. I suppose if I looked really hard and could read ancient Hebrew and a few other ancient languages, I might be able to cite some actual incantations that were commonly used in the ANE, but the expenditure of time might be prohibitive. – rhetorician Jul 29 '14 at 2:39
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    @rhetorician - Do you really think witchcraft, sorcery, and the "black arts" have really changed that much over the centuries? - Yes, actually. There are several "specialist" roles known from the ancient Near East; the assumption that all of them were spell-casters/sorcerers is misplaced. There are loads of "incantations" known from the ancient world (see, e.g., Tzvi Abusch, Mesopotamian Witchcraft (Brill, 2002) - but that's no help for Ex 22:18[17] if it's the wrong kind of "practitioner". As evocative as the Macbeth passage is, it's a red herring here. – Dɑvïd Jul 29 '14 at 5:57
  • @David: It's a red herring only if I used it in an attempt to slip something by someone, so to speak. That, rest assured, was not my intent. I even said the passage from Shakespeare was anachronistic. Lighten up, David. Empires are crumbling. Don – rhetorician Jan 12 '16 at 22:58

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