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Peter on Exodus: Part III

Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words
Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live

Judy Harrow, a Wiccan author and teacher who has been a friend of mine for many years, took me to task in a comment on my last post for quoting without comment a particularly notorious passage from the Bible: Exodus 22:17 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

There are several reasons why I didn't make a fuss about it. First, and most important, the best way to fight prejudice against Pagans and Witches is to be one, openly, and to be a visibly grounded and decent human being. I am.

Second, “proof-texting” in general is a really bad approach to trying to support any argument for anything. I have read a lot of scripture-based arguments in favor of gay rights (for example). Some of them are even convincing. But the Bible has plenty of hate and intolerance in it as well; more than enough to support the likes of Fred Phelps and the God-Hates-Fags Church. Phelps isn't wrong because one passage in Matthew supersedes another in Leviticus; Phelps is wrong because he's an evil hatemongerer. To debate him on the scriptural merits of hate vs. love is to lose the debate at the outset.

Third, as Alexei Kondratiev shows in very convincing detail in an article that Judy linked to from her comment, it's not a mistranslation. Wiccans will often tell you the passage really says “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.” And its true that in the Septuagint, the Greek word is pharmakos, meaning an herbalist capable of both poisoning and healing. But Alexei himself tells us that:

In its original Hebrew text the verse reads: M'khashephah lo tichayyah. Literally this means: "May a m'khashephah not live" or "You will not keep a m'khashephah in life." M'khashephah is the feminine form (although it also has a collective meaning) of a term which can also be used in the masculine m'khasheph). It means someone who practices k'shaphim, a magic characterized by spell-working that aggressively makes changes in the environment.

The Anchor Bible states:

The Versions vary on the number and gender of the enchanter(s). … Our sole extant Hebrew reading, however, is MT-Sam, banning only the mǝdaššpēpâ 'sorceress (fem. Sing.),' the lectio brevior et difficilior. The other translations appear deliberately to broaden a narrow statute.

A fourth reason for not commenting on the passage is just that it didn't seem all that shocking, perched as it was between how to sell your daughter into slavery and thou shalt put to death anyone sacrificing to other Gods. There's some really bad stuff in the Bible.

In fact, the only reason I quoted the passage at all is because it was a familiar phrase but I hadn't known before exactly where it came from. It was just one in a surprisingly long list of commandments. Some of them are fine and good, some are just odd, and some are downright horrifying.

But that's news?

Comments

Babette said…
Don't know if you caught my blog post http://elizabetheames.blogspot.com/2009/02/dangerous-faith-based-initiative.html

on how some Evangelical Friends are behaving in Haiti. Thought you might want to know. Blessed be.

Elizabeth Roebling, Asheville Friends
Berzerker said…
I talk to a rabbi about that. Poisoner is not a reference to drugs or witchcraft. Hebrew tradition had witchcraft, it was called kaballah. Poisoner means word twister. One who causes problems with their mouth.
Thanks for the link to Kondratiev's article! It is very informative. It's quite interesting that of the four examples he gives of modern Bible translations, two of them use words that do not specifically refer to practitioners of malefic magic, but rather to magical practitioners generally.

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