What does the Bible mean by saying in Exodus 22:18 (KJV)

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

What exactly is the Bible instructing?

3 Answers 3


Rather than command us to put witches to death (just like any other death penalty in the Pentateuch) the bible here instructs others (perhaps the courts) to not let any witches live, which seems to be a simple translation of this verse from Hebrew to english.

Rashbam notes that this must be a specific instruction given to others to "hunt them down", because witches tended to practice witchcraft in hiding. Shadal follows this understanding as well.

(Various other Jewish commentaries suggest that this language is used to teach us that the commandment is to kill witches immediately however possible, as opposed to waiting for judgment.)

Mecklenburg suggests that this wording is used as a parallel to Deuteronomy 20:16, which refers to the killing of all of the Canaanite Nations, and tells us that we should not have mercy, even on women. This applies here as well, where the verse is discussing witchcraft, which was generally performed by women.

  • Of course, the problematic part here is what exactly the word we translate as “a witch” actually meant (the same goes for various activities in Deuteronomy 18:10-11). We are dealing here with the specific jargon used by community of users of magic some three thousand years ago. The community which itself left no records, so we really don’t know much.
    – mcepl
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 6:43

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live simply meant to kill all witches. Proof of this is found in the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor. The witch is asked to perform a little witchcraft but is fearful of being caught and killed.

1 Samuel 28:9 (ESV)
1 Samuel 28:9 (ESV) The woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?"


In Hebrew, the verse is:

מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃

Literally, that translates to something like "A witch shall not be kept alive". It just specifies that a witch shouldn't be let to live. In Deuteronomy 20:16, that phrasse is translated "thou shalt save alive nothing...". It doesn't specify how they are to die in that particular verse. The following two verses also specify people who should die or be put to death, each using different words, and neither specifying the manner of death. It is typical in Hebrew as a literary device to group items together with similar words or phrases to emphasize the meaning, and so it seems that they have a direct impact on the understanding of this verse.

It seems clear from the passage that a witch, or one who "whispers a spell" as Strong's indicates to be the root concept, should be subject to the death penalty in the same manner as the others performing illegal actions in that context.

  • 2
    Why do you translate it to "witch no live"? This is not correct English and does not reflect the tense of the verb. I would suggest "no witch shall live" which reflects the jussive with "shall live" and the universal לא with "no witch".
    – user2672
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 15:36
  • @Keelan what about "No witch shall be kept alive", or "you should not keep a witch alive", contrast to Deut. 20:16 (biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+20%3A16)
    – user22655
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 16:55
  • @Keelan (not sure why we're arguing with you rather than the poster, but...) I believe it's 2nd masc. piel rather than 3rd fem. qal; the latter would be pointed תִּחְיֶה (or apocopated תְּחִי). (Not sure about calling it jussive either, though it's clearly volitional.)
    – Susan
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 17:36
  • @Susan and רבות מחשבות, you are absolutely correct, I skipped over the vowels. I also used wrong terminology; apologies, I should not have said jussive. The point is that this imperfect goes back to a Proto-North West Semitic long imperfect (as can be seen from the final ־ה), which I translated as shall. (The piel of this root isn't attested with the short imperfect according to Gesenius, but the difference can be seen e.g. in ערה, the piel imperfect of which has both יֶעָרֶה and תְּעַר. These differences are only visible in hollow and III-ה roots.)
    – user2672
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:16
  • So, to break it down: the indefiniteness of מכשׁפה and the universality of לא mean we should translate "any witch"; the piel of חיה indicates "let live"; the long imperfect is a broad category but can here be understood with deontic modality "should". All in all this yields "you should not let any witch live".
    – user2672
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:20

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.