Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live – But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Bad People


Have you ever seen a book, movie or TV show where the Forces of Good (or at least the Forces of Law and Order) have been forced by circumstances to work with their enemies, only to find that those enemies aren’t really such bad people?  Of course you have.  Such alliances are high drama, and they develop characters in new and interesting ways (which then opens the door to new plotlines, a not-unimportant thing in continuing series).  Besides, such a story is honest in at least two important ways:

1)     Such alliances really do happen; and

2)     No good man is entirely good, and no bad man is entirely bad: Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church was a minor hero of the civil rights movement in his youth; the Yakuza provided great amounts of humanitarian aid in the wake of the Fukushima disaster; even Hitler himself was, by all accounts, great with animals and nice to his secretary.  If you want the characters you write to be true and human, they probably have at least a few good qualities.

But of all the places you’re going to find such a story, surely The Bible isn’t one of them.  The Bible deals in moral absolutes.  Yes, it’s full of sinners – For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, right? – but those sinners are never portrayed in a positive light as sinners, right?  They’re either redeemed – at which point they become positive characters – or they fall to ruin because of their sin.  Moral absolutes.  That’s the whole point.

Largely true, but there are some interesting exceptions.  For example, there was Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho who never left her profession, and yet was downright heroic…at least to the Israelites.

And then there’s the Witch of Endor.

First, I’ll let the Bible tell the story, which takes place in 1 Samuel 28: 3-25, in its own words:

3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land.
4 And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.
5 And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.
6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
7 Then said Saul unto his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divineth by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divineth by a ghost at En-dor.’
8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine unto me, I pray thee, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name unto thee.’
9 And the woman said unto him: ‘Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’
10 And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying: ‘As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.’
11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’
12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.’
13 And the king said unto her: ‘Be not afraid; for what seest thou?’ And the woman said unto Saul: ‘I see a godlike being coming up out of the earth.’
14 And he said unto her: ‘What form is he of?’ And she said: ‘An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a robe.’ And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself. {S}
15 And Samuel said to Saul: ‘Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?’ And Saul answered: ‘I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams; therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.’ {S}
16 And Samuel said: ‘Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine adversary?
17 And the LORD hath wrought for Himself; as He spoke by me; and the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David.
18 Because thou didst not hearken to the voice of the LORD, and didst not execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day.
19 Moreover the LORD will deliver Israel also with thee into the hand of the Philistines; and to-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me; the LORD will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.’
20 Then Saul fell straightway his full length upon the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.
21 And the woman came unto Saul, and saw that he was sore affrighted, and said unto him: ‘Behold, thy handmaid hath hearkened unto thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto thy words which thou spokest unto me.
22 Now therefore, I pray thee, hearken thou also unto the voice of thy handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before thee; and eat, that thou mayest have strength, when thou goest on thy way.’
23 But he refused, and said: ‘I will not eat.’ But his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he hearkened unto their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed.
24 And the woman had a fatted calf in the house; and she made haste, and killed it; and she took flour, and kneaded it, and did bake unleavened bread thereof;
25 and she brought it before Saul, and before his servants; and they did eat. Then they rose up, and went away that night. {P}

What was that?

Much has been made of Exodus 22:18: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.  Certainly, a lot of people down the ages (mostly women) who’ve been identified as witches were not suffered to live.  But the identification is more questionable than you might think.  Some argue that the word translated as “witch” meant “well-poisoner”, which you’d certainly want to deal with harshly.  Or it might have just been a law against magical assault – in a society that believes magic exists, of course they’re going to make laws about it, and the Hebrews prescribed the death sentence for a lot of things.

But all of that is academic.  There were plenty of other, less ambiguous laws:

Leviticus 19:26 – “Do Not Practice Divination Nor Seek Omens”

Leviticus 20:6 –  ‘And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.

Leviticus 20:7 –  ‘A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.

In short, the Witch of Endor’s magic was both against God and very, very illegal.

There were only a few methods of divination that were considered legitimate in ancient Israel: prophets, dreams, and the Urim and Thummim.  What the Urim and Thummim actually were has been lost to history; all we know was that they were a method of divination and they were kept in the high priest’s ephod, which was part of his vestments.  In other words, only the forms of divination that were controlled directly by YHVH (and, not coincidentally, His priesthood) were allowed.  Unfortunately for Saul, all of those forms of divination refused to give him any answers.  In his desperation, he goes to visit a necromancer.

It’s no real surprise that the Witch’s séance is successful.  Saul didn’t banish all of those non-clerical magic users because he thought they were frauds.  Quite the opposite.  And the Bible itself has never been shy about showing magic that wasn’t aligned with YHVH working – the Witch herself and Pharaoh’s court magicians from Moses’s day are the first examples to come to mind.  What’s surprising is what comes after.

Saul has just made his last fuckup in a long career full of fuckups.  He was almost certainly doomed before, but visiting a practitioner of Forbidden Rites has put the seal on his fate.  He and his sons are going to die tomorrow.

So what does that practitioner of Forbidden Rites do?  She makes him dinner.

I’m assuming that the Witch isn’t young – learning witchcraft and building a reputation both take time – so what I’m picturing here is our Dark Wielder of Forbidden Magics being a kindly Jewish grandmother: “Eat, eat!  You’ll feel better!”


To the writer of this passage, witches weren’t dark and mysterious figures of terror, they were the old lady down the street.  I’m reminded of when my ex-wife and I first moved to New York, and the drug dealers on the street corner watched over our car and the stuff therein while we moved into my ex-mother-in-law’s apartment: “Oh, they’re nice boys.  They don’t want any trouble.  They just want to sell their drugs.”  And I suppose the guys who sell pot and ecstasy to Columbia students aren’t the scariest dudes in the criminal underworld.

The ancient Hebrews were surprisingly pragmatic in a lot of ways, to the extent that their collective knowledge allowed, and they were definitely honest with themselves.  So this is what you get, the same story as mine 4,000 years later: “Eh, witches.  What’re you gonna do?  Can’t suffer ‘em to live, of course, the law’s the law, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.”




Filed under Inspirations

2 responses to “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live – But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Bad People

  1. Life and history – including religious- is full of contradictions. Coming to a set of values we can understand and live by takes effort and desire to improve our own and others’ experience in life. Thanks for the post. Lots of food for thought.

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