Witches in the Hebrew Bible

[This was originally posted October 31, 2005]

This last week I was copying an article in the Festschrift for John F.A. Sawyer (Words Remembered, Texts Renewed, JSOT 195, Sheffield 1995), and came across an interesting chapter on witches in the Hebrew Bible by Graham Harvey (pp. 113-134). This piqued my interest and I thought, considering that today is Halloween, I would blog a bit on the subject of witches in the Hebrew Bible.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

Witches have come a long way in popular culture. Shakespeare’s characterization of witches in Macbeth as old wrinkly hags that dance naked around a pot of boiling potion is still found in the stereotypical Halloween costumes and in the portrayal of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

But there is also a more attractive characterization of the witch in film and television. For instance, Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha in Bewitched did not fit the stereotype, nor did Nicole Kidman in the recent remake. And, of course, the stereotype was dashed to pieces with the Harry Potter books. Hermione Granger does not look like a witch, she looks just like a young girl.

Of course, this raises the question of where did this stereotypical image of the witch as an old Hag with warts and frogs come from? Well, first of all, it did NOT come from the Bible.

Witches and Witchcraft in the Hebrew Bible

One of the first things that you realize when broaching the subject of witches in the Hebrew Bible, is how little we actually know!

If you look for the word “witch” in the NRSV, you would look in vain. The word “witchcraft” is only found in Lev 19:26 to translate תעוננו. The NIV is similar in that the term “witch” is not found, but you do find the term “witchcraft” five times to translate words from the root כסף (Deut 18:10; 2 Kings 9:22; 2 Chron 33:6; Mic 5:12; Nah 3:4). The picture is again somewhat different if you look at the KJV, which adds Exod 22:17 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”; once again from כסף) and 1 Sam 15:23 (translating קס×? “divination”) to the examples from the NIV.

One of the key passages about witchcraft in the Hebrew Bible — or at least a passage that brings together a series of terms relating to magic is Deut 18:9-14.

9 When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so (NRSV).

The terms employed include the following:

  • “One who practices divination” (קס×? קסמי×?). This term is used primarily for the practices of non-Israelites who tell the future or prophesy by various means. Some take this to be a more general term that describes the whole complex of magical and divinatory practices in ancient Israel.
  • “Soothsayer” (מעונן). Someone who can interpret signs or looks for omens.
  • “Augur” (מנחש×?). To seek and give omens, foretell. Could be some sort of divination related to snakes.
  • “Sorcerer” (מכש×?×£). This term is probably closest to the idea of magic and witchcraft.
  • “One who casts spells” (חבר חבר). This would be a charmer or the like.
  • “One who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead (ש×?ל ×?וב֙ וידעני ודרש×? ×?ל־המתי×?). These terms appear to be related to the practice of necromancy, i.e., divination by inquiring of the dead.

Most of these terms occur infrequently and are very difficult to unpack in a meaningful way. Even the concept of magic in the Hebrew Bible is had to define. ABD uses “the term ‘magic’ will be used here to refer to methods associated with the gaining of suprahuman knowledge and power or with influencing suprahuman powers.” The majority of places where these terms are used are clearly negative, though there are some more neutral occurrences. It appears that many of these terms are used to characterize illegitimate practices relating to telling (or perhaps changing) the future by those who do not worship Yahweh.

No matter how you understand some of these terms, what is clear is that these terms do not tell us anything about what these people looked like. So where does our image of witches come from?

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

More recognizable images of witches from English literature like MacBeth are derived from classical Roman authors and mediaeval sources.

For instance, the Roman poet Lucan (39-65 AD) describes a “witch” that fits our modern stereotypes in book six of his Pharsalia (also known as “The Civil War”):

To her no home
Beneath a sheltering roof her direful head
Thus to lay down were crime: deserted tombs
Her dwelling-place, from which, darling of hell,
610 She dragged the dead. Nor life nor gods forbad
But that she knew the secret homes of Styx
And learned to hear the whispered voice of ghosts
At dread mysterious meetings. (35) Never sun
Shed his pure light upon that haggard cheek
Pale with the pallor of the shades, nor looked
Upon those locks unkempt that crowned her brow.
In starless nights of tempest crept the Hag
Out from her tomb to seize the levin bolt;
Treading the harvest with accursed foot
620 She burned the fruitful growth, and with her breath
Poisoned the air else pure. No prayer she breathed
Nor supplication to the gods for help

Horace has a number of similar descriptions of witches in his Epodes. He describes the “hideous looks of all these hags” one of which has “interwoven her hair and uncombed head with little vipers” and who make potions out of disgusting materials. It is descriptions like these that inspired Shakespeare, not the Bible.

Of course, the best portrayal of a witch in popular culture is found in Monty Python’s The Quest for the Holy Grail! (See it here)

UPDATE (2006): You will want to check out a post by Menachem Mendel on witches (he also notes the following brief article: Witches in the Bible and Talmud). Phil Harland also relates an ancient ghost story here.

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3 Responses to Witches in the Hebrew Bible

  1. David Lang says:

    Great post, Tyler. I just have one nit to pick: I believe it’s “Double, double, toil and trouble.” The “bubble” comes in the next line: “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

  2. Joe Cathey says:


    Two thoughts here. First, the witch in the Wizard of Oz scared me to death when I was a child. I still don’t like to watch that movie. Second, I laughed so hard that diet coke came out my nose when I watched the witch scene from Monty Python – once again. Thanks.


  3. Pingback: Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Beware of White Cats!

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