“You shall not allow a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death. He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the Lord alone, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:18-20)
Chapter 22 of Exodus continues what was begun in Chapter 21 with the listing of civil laws regarding property rights and criminal infractions under the Mosaic System. What is perhaps most remarkable about the statutes given is their simplicity and commonsensical intuitiveness. If you steal something from someone, you must make suitable restitution. If you hurt someone, you will be punished accordingly. God’s Law is very straightforward and uncomplicated; it is man in his unwillingness to mete out appropriate justice who has founded governments which convolute matters of legality.
Under the Law of Moses, there were no considerations given to irrelevant, peripheral circumstances; if a person wronged another then they would be required to make it right. An individual’s guiltiness was never mitigated based on their “mental state” or the craftiness of their attorney. Every violator of the Law received a penalty directly proportionate to the crime which they had committed.
We do find, however, right in the middle of Chapter 22 of Exodus, three very brief verses which dictate that the death penalty is to be exacted upon perpetrators of what initially appear to be infractions unworthy of such a harsh sentence. Those who dabble in the occult, those who practice bestiality, and those who worship idols or pagan gods are to be put to death, according to verses 18-20. Why are these three acts, despicable as they may be, singled out as capital offenses?
Sorcery: The Crime of the Canaanites
“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-14)
First of all, sorcery, or the practice of the occult arts, was the very thing which the nations who were living in the land were guilty of. God labeled their practices as detestable. These heathen peoples had long since exchanged the truth of God for doctrines of demons by worshipping evil spirits. Rather than consulting the God of Heaven, they relied upon the guidance of demonic forces. It is interesting to note that, while many different labels are given for these practices in the above passage from Deuteronomy, in essence, it is the same type of act being described. Whether a person is dabbling in Black Magic, consulting a “psychic medium”, attempting to channel or speak with the dead, or engaging in any other type of “spiritism”, it is all considered sorcery and is nothing more than the worship of Satan.
If God would not tolerate such practices among the pagan nations, how much more would He condemn it among His own people? Any Israelite who would engage in such devil-worship was to be considered a cancer that must be removed from the community before they infected others. Our modern sensibilities might make us flinch to consider someone being executed for dabbling in occultism, but God considered this a very serious matter indeed.
Sorcery: A Counterfeit Religion
“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.” (Revelation 9:20-21)
This passage in Revelation reveals that sorcery, idolatry, and the worship of demons are synonymous. While verse 20 of Exodus 22 might seem wholly unrelated to verse 18, they are actually two sides of the same coin. Since there are no other actual “gods” (cf. Isaiah 44:6-8), the worship of any other force than God is tantamount to the direct worship of the Satanic. Though people may not be consciously rendering worship to demons, though they might call them by other names, they are worshipping demonic forces just the same.
When we think of sorcery or witchcraft, images of wizards with flowing robes and magic wands might come to mind. Or perhaps we think of witches, clad in black, standing over a cauldron of bubbling brew, reciting esoteric incantations that will cast a spell on their helpless victims. But this isn’t exactly what the Word of God has in view. The sorcery mentioned in Scripture refers to any attempt to tap into powers that do not originate with God in order to gain hidden knowledge or accomplish one’s own purposes. Whether a person is trying to contact the dead in order to learn something of the afterlife or they are summoning “the spirits” in order to peer into the future, it is sorcery. It is nothing less than spiritual treason against God by consulting the enemies of the Lord rather than God Himself.
We should understand that, while much of what has been passed off as “magical”, “supernatural”, or “paranormal” has often been nothing more than trickery and sleight of hand, there is an element to sorcery that is based in fact. The devil and his angels do have certain powers and abilities that surpass our understanding. And while Satan is by no means omniscient, he does possess a great deal of knowledge simply due to the fact that he has been around a very long time and has demonic minions working around the world attempting to foil the purposes of God. These demons communicate with one another, no doubt, and can certainly reveal information to those seeking it in a seemingly supernatural way. Therefore, the sorcery which the Bible forbids is not merely some mythological superstition but a very real communion with evil forces.
It seems that every generation has had some degree of fascination with the occult. In the 19th Century, it was fashionable in Victorian society to conduct séances in order to contact the spirits of the deceased. In the middle of the 20th Century, horoscopes and astrology were extremely popular pastimes used to attempt to forecast the future or learn something of one’s personality traits based on the movement of the stars and planets. In recent years, there has been an inundation of T.V. shows about paranormal research, where crews of investigators “hunt” ghosts and demons using presumably scientific methods. Though the techniques and mechanics have changed, these all have one thing in common: they are attempts to learn about the unknown through occultism. Rather than consulting the wisdom of God as revealed in His Word, mankind has always been tempted to satisfy his curiosity by other ways. Even if it means consulting demons for knowledge, man’s desire to know his origin and destiny has lead him to look in the most improbable places. God has already revealed everything we need to know about our own origins, destiny, and how we are to conduct our lives. We never need to look anywhere but to Him for knowledge of these things.
Put A Sorceress To Death?
Finally, we should look for a moment at the reality of how this passage from Exodus 22, particularly the 18th verse, has been misunderstood and abused in the past. Some of the most unspeakable cruelties have been carried out by using the Bible’s condemnation of “witches” and “sorcerers” for support. For instance, the infamous trials of the 17th Century in Salem, Massachusetts where many young women were put to death, convicted of being witches, is a blight on what was otherwise a very orderly and godly Puritan society. Skeptics have also gleefully referred to passages such as this in order to mock Christians and our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. But a greater understanding of what the Bible teaches in context will quickly clear up any confusion about the matter.
The instructions for executing a sorceress are given in the Law of Moses, particularly the section dealing with the civil laws to be enforced by the government of the nation of Israel. Israel was to be a Theocracy with God as its ultimate Sovereign and human leaders commissioned to administer the laws on His behalf. No individual was ever instructed or permitted to carry out a personal vendetta under the auspices of the Law. Throughout the Law of Moses it is reinforced time and time again that a minimum of two or three credible witnesses were required in order to legally convict anyone of any infraction. And this was to be done in an orderly manner, before a legally commissioned council. The idea that someone could simply point their finger at an enemy and accuse them of witchcraft in order to dispose of the person was never the intention of the Law.
Secondly, the civil statutes of the Law of Moses were never given to any government other than Israel (including colonial Massachusetts). The Hebrews had just been liberated from Egypt, a land riddled with occultism, paganism, and idolatry and were being led into a land even more depraved. Their spiritual fortitude was weak and brittle to say the least and any compromise with demonism would have spread like wildfire throughout the nation. It took only a few rebellious hearts to persuade the entire nation to bow down before a golden calf, and it would later take only a few more to lead Israel down the path to full-blown paganism and idolatry. Eventually, the nation would become so corrupt that nothing short of an exile out of the land could purge the cancer that had spread.
“But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”” (Acts 8:20-24)
As we see from this passage in the Book of Acts, Christians living under the Law of Grace in Christ were by no means expected to execute sorcerers. Peter rebuked Simon the Sorcerer for his impure motives but he did not call for the man to be put to death. Nowhere in the New Testament are instructions given to kill a person because of witchcraft, idolatry, or sorcery. We are to be witnesses of the mercy of God and share the Gospel with sinners, not execute God’s judgment on them! Of course, most Christians understand this difference wherein many skeptics do not.
Doing Things Our Own Way
The three capital crimes listed in Exodus 22:18-20 are all perversions of the order which God intended to be in His people’s lives. The practice of sorcery is the giving of one’s mind to the powers of darkness rather than submitting the mind to God. Bestiality (and any other sexual deviance) is the giving of the body for the gratification of one’s sexual desires in a way that God never intended. And the blatant, open worship and sacrifice to an idol or false god is to give the heart to the devil rather than to God. So we have here that which affects the mind, body, and spirit of a person; it is giving to God’s enemies the love, obedience, and devotion that belongs to God alone. The Lord Jesus confirmed that the greatest commandment in the Law is to love the Lord with all of our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength (cf. Luke 10:26-28). No wonder these three offenses were viewed so seriously under the Law of Moses!
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,
**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.